The last leaves of autumn fluttered from a stand of aspens surrounded by a mix of fir and spruce trees sweeping across the foothills of the Big Belts. In the distance below, Canyon Ferry Reservoir dominated the valley, leading to the Elkhorns lining the western horizon. Just off the road, a new sign tells the story of this place, and how four sisters from Broadwater County decided to turn their family ranch over to public ownership.
A convoy of vehicles bounced along Lippert Gulch road northeast of Townsend Tuesday morning, navigating through ruts and over rocks on their way to the former Neild Ranch property, a 988-acre parcel located high in the Ray Creek drainage. The trucks carried Broadwater County commissioners, representatives for Sen. Jon Tester and Rep. Steve Daines, Forest Service employees, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation representatives and others. And one of the trucks contained Barbara O’Dore and Edwina Hankinson, two of the four sisters letting their ranch go.
“We’re truly blessed today,” Mike Mueller, Elk Foundation Lands Program manager told the gathered crowd. “This is a big deal and you know we need to pause and take time because we worked so hard for this.”
Mueller unveiled a bugle, and placing it to his lips, kicked off the dedication of the newest piece of the Helena National Forest with a scream reminiscent of the biggest bull in the Belts.
A combination of the Montana Fish and Wildlife Conservation Trust, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the Cinnabar Foundation and the Land and Water Conservation Fund and RMEF purchased the property and conveyed it to the Helena National Forest. All had played an important role in bringing the project together for a price tag of around $1 million, Mueller said.
The Neild family had the property for sale two years ago, before now-retired Forest Service land manager Bob Dennee jumped on the project, Mueller said. The first meeting between the Elk Foundation, Forest Service, and the four sisters started a relationship of trust and patience, he said.
“We know we can’t do everything out there, but once in a while projects like this come along where you just have to do them,” Mueller said.
Getting the property into public hands meant an appraisal and fundraising, all of which took considerable time and a willingness to wait on the part of the family, he said.
The thousand-acre acquisition also improves access to more than 6,000 additional acres of land, Mueller said.
The property, located about a mile south of Mount Baldy, extends the national forest into the foothills of the valley, along with connecting public lands to a private ranch enrolled in the Block Management Program allowing access to hunters, Dennee said.
“By acquiring this property, we’ve opened up a stringer of connected pieces of land,” he said. “And if you listen to the public in Montana today, what’s the No. 1 issue? It’s access.”
The day after the four sisters agreed to sell the property to the Forest Service two years ago, the Broadwater County Commissioners signed a letter of support, Dennee said.
The public response has been exceptional as well, said Townsend District ranger Corey Lewellen.
“I was very impressed and blown away to be honest,” he said. “This is incredible as an agency when we get to work with landowners on an amazing project.”
Because of the attention the project has generated, the Forest Service has plans to bump up road maintenance in the area, Lewellen said.
While the property provides quality habitat for elk, deer and other wildlife, Ray Creek contains a five mile stretch of water housing a pure strain of Westslope cutthroat trout that does not share habitat with non-native fish, said Forest Service biologist Archie Harper.
“This is one of about four pure populations of cutthroat that remain in this mountain range,” he said. “We got about 5 miles of habitat and usually we’re lucky if we can get one or two.”
Biologists have tapped Ray Creek for trout to plant in other area streams, like White Horse Creek in the Elkhorns, Harper said.
As an unusual October thunderstorm rolled across Canyon Ferry, attendees posed for pictures, and Hankinson, Barbara and her husband, George O’Dore, received prints from RMEF of the vista from their former property. Their other two sisters, Marcia Iverson and Phyllis English, were unable to attend.
As the fourth generation of the Neild family to live in Broadwater County, still being able to enjoy their former ranch was a great result, Hankinson said.
“It’s kind of a bittersweet day for us,” Barbara said. “We have a lot of memories up here; you know we used to trail cattle up here and come up on picnics and pick choke cherries. Now the good thing is we can still come. It is a beautiful piece of property.”