Dick Giuliani

The State of Montana, through the Department of Natural Resources, DNRC, and Department of Environmental Quality, DEQ, approved the Elbow Lake Gravel Pit and Asphalt Plant in 2023. The 20 acre site of the gravel pit on Highway 83 is part of the critical wildlife corridor to and from the Blackfoot-Clearwater Wildlife Management Area (BCWMA).

The rationale for the decision by the state to approve the pit was that it needed funding to support education. The decision was made despite overwhelming opposition to the gravel pit from the citizens of Montana, as documented by letters submitted to DNRC and DEQ.

The approval by DNRC and DEQ to use this land for a gravel pit is completely contradictory and undermines a monumental decision made by the State of Montana in 2009, through the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, MFWP, and the Montana Department of Transportation, MDOT, to preserve 53 acres of land directly north and adjacent to the 20 acre parcel approved for the gravel pit.

In the 2009 Draft Environmental Assessment prepared by FWP and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service titled—Mitigation Plan for MT Highway 83 Right of Way Conveyance on the Blackfoot-Clearwater Wildlife Management Area, the 53 acres was described as follows: “This parcel consists of native fescue prairie and ponderosa pine parkland—high quality ungulate winter range.

In addition, It included 1,800 feet of Clearwater River frontage at the point of most migrating elk and deer to use to travel between summer ranges to the west and the main unit of the BCWMA. If the parcel sold on the private market, it would have almost certainly have been developed for residential use, causing long term and significant impact to the function of the adjacent WMA.”

This 53 acres was purchased by the State from a private owner and had an appraised value of 1.6 million dollars in 2009. It should also be noted the FWP worked with the private developers of the River Watch subdivision, just north of this 53 acres, to preserve acreage for the same purpose.

A press release in 2009 lauded the efforts of FWP and DOT to preserve the critical wildlife habitat. In part it stated: “The property was being actively marketed as a residential subdivision and this project ensures it will be protected forever. It’s a great example of two agencies working together to both benefit wildlife and increase public safety.” Jay Kolbe, FWP’s area wildlife biologist.

It is important to note that this land acquisition and preservation was intended to extend the wildlife corridor from the adjacent 20 acres approved for the pit, which is also critical wildlife habitat and crucial for the migration of animals to and from BCWMA.

As mentioned, the 53 acres was appraised for 1.6 million dollars in 2009. The State has the obligation of protecting the value of our land. What would be the appraised value of this parcel now with a gravel pit and asphalt plant next to it? Would a private developer be interested in creating a subdivision on those 53 acres now?

In contrast to the laudable and historical efforts of FWP and DOT in 2009 to increase critical wildlife habitat, extend the wildlife corridor next the BCWMA and improve public safety, the decisions made by DNRC and DEQ have resulted in contradictory and illogical decisions. These decisions have decreased critical wildlife habitat, narrowed the pathway of migration while causing long term and significant impact to the function of the adjacent WMA, and increased public safety issues.

As mentioned, the rationale from DNRC to approve the pit was to secure monies for public education at the expense of the loss of critical wildlife habitat. This decision is completely contrary to the 2009 decision of FWP and DOT. If the 53 acres had been developed into a subdivision, the revenues generated for public education from taxation on the properties would have far exceeded any revenue to the State generated by the gravel pit.

Folks from the FWP and DOT realized that any monetary compensation to the state ie, property tax revenue from the subdivision to fund public education or for any other purpose paled in comparison to the lifetime preservation of critical wildlife habitat. People involved in that 2009 decision must be commended. Unlike those individuals from the DNRC and DEQ who made the illogical decision to approve the gravel pit, the people who made the decision to protect that critical habitat in 2009 had the foresight, conviction and perseverance to preserve this land—our land for future generations—forever.

Another example of flawed decision making from DNRC relates to the justification of approving the gravel pit based on wind patterns. In their environmental assessment to address concerns about the dust that would be generated from the operation of the pit, the report included this statement, “By utilizing the wind rose, it can be determined that most of the fugitive dust, asphalt plant emissions (smell) and equipment emissions would be blowing away from Elbow Lake and the cabin sites.”

Within the first two weeks of the operation of the gravel pit before it was shut down, dust covered cabin sites, and was found in Elbow Lake and the Clearwater River.

Fortunately, Judge Larson granted a preliminary injunction stopping all operations of the Elbow Lake Gravel Pit based on the finding that “DEQ had granted a dryland opencut permit without confirming whether surface and groundwater could be polluted or how many residents could be affected within half-mile of the area.” Missoula Current 8/9/23.

This decision is currently under appeal to the Montana Supreme Court. Protect the Clearwater, a nonprofit organization, has been at the forefront of the legal effort to protect our land and preserve it for future generations.  Please support the cause of Protect the Clearwater by contributing to their legal fund.  Protect the Clearwater (protecttheclearwatermt.org)