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Dan Barrett remembers running cattle with his father deep in the aspens behind Falls Creek. He calls them some of his happiest memories.

Barrett was the owner of the 442-acre Falls Creek property, which abuts the Dearborn River and the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest. The elk-heavy and scenery-rich property that Barrett has spent 66 years of his life ranching also provides access to more than 26,000 acres of public land near Augusta.

And thanks to a $2.46 million deal brokered by Barrett and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, the Falls Creek property is now open to the public. 

The newest addition to the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest, the Falls Creek property is a classic image of the West. A waterfall pours into a crystalline pool and a wide valley shivers with aspens. Hunters are already looking at the area, where elk are over-objective, and imagining the possibilities of hunting season in 2019. 

Along with the RMEF, Lewis and Clark County provided a significant amount of funds to get the property open this year. The county paid $1.4 million from its Open Lands Fund to help move the project to completion and was a key partner in getting the space open to the public. 

Blake Henning, chief communications officer for the RMEF, added that the United States Forest Service, Montana's Fish, Wildlife & Parks Department and the United States Congress had also been key partners in finishing the Falls Creek project. 

"There's significance in its beauty and use and its great public access," Lewis and Clark County Commissioner Andy Hunthausen said. "It's the whole nine yards."

The Falls Creek area has a history of clashes over access. Joseph Campbell shot and killed his neighbor in a high-profile land-access dispute in a subdivision across the creek in 2013, eventually pleading no contest to negligent homicide. 

The property had been closed to the public for a decade, but over the past few years Barrett had been working with the RMEF, Lewis and Clark County and other partners to make the area public.

"This is what it's all about to be a Montanan," Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney said about the Falls Creek acquisition. "To have access to these kinds of lands ... if you're someone who hunts, who fishes, who hikes, this answers all of those needs."

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U.S. Sen. Steve Daines agreed with Cooney about the acquisition. 

"This is a day to celebrate for Montana and for those who love our public lands," Daines said, and he commended the partners on getting the job done.

"County government, federal government and private landowners worked together to provide access to over 40 square miles of great elk, deer hunting in absolutely one of the most beautiful places in our state," he said.

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Crime and Health Reporter

Crime and health reporter for the Helena Independent Record.

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