The Montana Fish and Wildlife Conservation Trust wants to give away $774,567 to worthy causes this spring that protect habitats.

The trust fund was created by the sale of cabin sites around Canyon Ferry Reservoir, which were owned by the federal Bureau of Reclamation. As part of the agreement for the loss of the federal public lands, the bulk of the proceeds from the sale were put into the trust, with interest from investments becoming a permanent source of funding.

The money is used to acquire publicly accessible land or easements in Montana that will restore and conserve fisheries and wildlife habitat; enhance public hunting, fishing and recreation opportunities; and improve public access to public lands.

The initial cabin-sale value of the trust was about $14.9 million. Even after distributing more than $4.2 million in the past decade, the trust’s value as of December 2012 was more than $19.2 million.

“The trust has done really well for what it was supposed to do,” said Rick Hotaling, a trust board member and Butte field manager for the Bureau of Land Management. “We’ve protected wildlife habitat and provided more fishing opportunities than what was allowed around Canyon Ferry when the cabin sites were leased.”

When the money is disbursed, half of it must be used on projects within the Missouri River headwaters basin. An equal amount then can be distributed statewide.

In years past, not enough projects were put forward for funding in the basin, which restricted the amount that could be spent statewide. Bill Orsello, a member of the Citizens Advisory Board that recommends which projects should get trust money, said he doesn’t think that will be the case this year.

“We have a real nice project up Ray Creek in the Big Belts … at the base of Mount Baldy that we can buy for $1,000 per acre,” Orsello said, adding that it’s a private inholding surrounded by public lands. “The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation is working to put that in as a multi-year phased project.

“The Forest Service also has that York property … and we’re working with Andy (Baur) at Prickly Pear Land Trust on some others.”

Orsello said they’ve also heard of quite a few projects that will be submitted on the statewide level.

“We’ve done some pretty good stuff during the last couple of years and I think that will continue,” Orsello said.

Some of those projects included $200,000 toward the purchase of the Aspen Trails Ranch, which will become a fishing access site on the Prickly Pear Creek in the Helena Valley and $90,000 to help purchase a private lot on Mount Ascension, which is part of a larger effort to maintain open space in that area.

Sen. Max Baucus also is encouraging people to share their ideas on projects to improve public access. He helped created the Trust through the Montana Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act of 1999.

“We are outdoors people in Montana — we hunt, we fish, we hike and Montana jobs rely on our out-door heritage,” Baucus said. “Making sure public access is built from the ground up by folks getting involved is the best way we can ensure we leave our state in better shape than we found it for our kids and grandkids.”

Applications must be postmarked no later than April 5. Applications may be requested by contacting the trust at 458-0389 or online at mtconservationtrust.org.

The Citizens Advisory Board is slated to discuss the grant requests at its regularly scheduled meeting on May 6, which begins at 10 a.m. at the Montana Wild Center, 2668 Broadway in Helena. The Joint Federal-State Board meets the next day at 9 a.m. at the Montana Wildlife Federation Headquarters, 5530 N. Montana Ave. in Helena.

Reporter Eve Byron: 447-4076 or eve.byron@helenair.com. Follow Eve on Twitter @IR_EveByron.

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