The proposal to buy the Spotted Dog property south of Avon easily cleared its latest hurdle, with the unanimous approval of the $15.2 million purchase from the state Land Board Monday morning.
The five-member Board of Land Commissioners — made up of Gov. Brian Schweitzer, Secretary of State Linda McCullough, State Auditor Monica Lindeen, Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau and Attorney General Steve Bullock — passed the measure without comment.
Only one member of the public spoke at the hearing. Ben Lamb, conservation director for the Montana Wildlife Federation, simply stated that his organization is in favor of the purchase.
The proposal calls for using funds from the Natural Resource Damage program to purchase 27,000 acres from the Rock Creek Cattle Co. for $15.2 million. An additional $1.2 million would come from the fund for five years to cover operating costs, plus $149,000 to lease 10,000 additional acres for 10 years, for a total price tag of about $16.5 million.
“This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for conservation,” said Paul Sihler, an administrator for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, who added that the effort to protect the parcel has been ongoing for a decade. “Either there was no funding; the land owner was not willing to do a conservation easement; or there wasn’t a willing seller. All those pieces have come together today.”
He noted that the parcel, including lands already owned by the state in the vicinity, is the second largest intact native grassland west of the Continental Divide. It’s home to more than 1,000 elk in the winter, as well as 180 other wildlife species, including 25 species that are of special concern to the state. A grizzly bear also recently was spotted there.
Sihler added that the property would be a Wildlife Management Area, open to hunters and others wanting to recreate there.
The NRD funds are from a $130 million legal settlement with Atlantic Richfield Co., with the money being earmarked for restoring and replacing environmental damage in the Clark Fork River Basin. The parcel is within that basin.
That funding source is a point of contention for some, especially residents of Butte and Anaconda, who fear that even with the settlement there won’t be enough money to repair damaged resources in their communities. Concerns also have been raised about the process, which didn’t follow the standard route that other projects using this type of funding must go through. There are also concerns that it was fast-tracked by Schweitzer.
Another issue for some people is that while the parcel is currently owned by the RY Timber Co., the Rock Creek Cattle Co. has an option to purchase the land for $9 million. A recent appraisal by the state put the value at $15 million, which is what the state must initially offer, which means the cattle company could make a quick $6 million in the real estate transaction.
Yet like Lamb, people who support the proposal fear the property would be subdivided and the opportunity to keep the important wildlife corridor intact would be lost. They believe that the $15 million — or about $550 per acre — is a fair price.
The proposal received 163 written comments, with 52 percent (85) in support and 34 percent (56) in opposition. The remaining 13 percent (22) didn’t state a position, but provided general overall comments.
The next step is for the proposal to go before the 13-member Upper Clark Fork River Basin Remediation and Restoration Advisory Council on Wednesday in the community center at 146 Cottonwood St. in Deer Lodge. The agenda says the Spotted Dog acquisition will be discussed beginning at 1 p.m.
The advisory council’s recommendation then goes before the Trustee Restoration Council, which meets from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. Aug. 26 in room 152 at the state Capitol to determine the final recommendation. Following that meeting, the final decision will be made by Schweitzer, who doesn’t have to follow any of the recommendations.
Reporter Eve Byron: 447-4076 or email@example.com