The Falls Creek waterfall

The Falls Creek waterfall is one of many natural features on a 440-acre piece of ranchland southwest of Augusta that the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation would like to open to public access.

The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation made its pitch to the Lewis and Clark County Commission on Tuesday morning for help to buy a piece of land that would provide access to more than 26,000 acres of wilderness near Augusta.

Mike Mueller gave a 10-minute presentation to explain the impact that purchasing three parcels on Daniel Barrett's ranch near Augusta would make, including easy access to the Falls Creek waterfall and making a huge swath of the Helena Lewis and Clark National Forest packed with elk available to hunters.

The 442-acre parcel would cost $2.46 million to purchase outright from the Barrett family, a number that the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation has been fundraising for the last few years. Mueller said the RMEF already had $870,000 lined up in sponsors, but needed the Lewis and Clark County open space bond funds to finish the deal as soon as possible. 

Mueller requested $1.5 million from the Lewis and Clark County open space bond on Tuesday. Mueller did say the number was a "moving target" depending on other fundraising, but the $1.5 million request was the start of the process.

Susan Good-Giese suggested the county would be willing to pay $1 million from the open space bond, citing other projects also vying for the cash.

"Requests keep coming in," Giese said. "That's why I'm more comfortable with other projects (also receiving funds). I'm thrilled this will move forward." 

The county still needs to have staff work through information about the area in order to finalize its decision after public comment.

Commissioner Andy Hunthausen said he agreed with the suggestions made by the Citizen Advisory Committee, which also suggested purchasing the Falls Creek land. "This meets all the criteria," Hunthausen said of the requirements needed to access the open space bond funds. "Now comments will come in and we'll be coming up with a number we can all agree on."

Falls Creek has a long and at times tragic history of clashes over access. While the Barretts’ property has remained closed for years due to trespass and liability concerns, an access dispute in a subdivision across the creek turned deadly in 2013 when Joseph Campbell shot and killed neighbor Timothy Newman. Campbell would eventually plead no contest in 2016 to negligent homicide.

Even with that background, RMEF is hoping to complete the purchase by 2020, but is eyeing 2019 if possible.

"This provides legal access for the Dearborn River," Mueller said.

The area is bursting with opportunities for fishing, hiking and sightseeing, with access to Bighorn Lake and 2 miles of backcountry streams. David Yerk, a Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks biologist, said the area included in the purchase improves rafting, drifting and fishing opportunities throughout the Dearborn River area.

Bryan Golie, a Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Game warden, said opportunities to purchase land like this on the Rocky Mountain Front "just don't happen."

"It's a chance of a lifetime," Golie said.

Wolves, grizzlies, mountain lions, elk and other megafauna all exist in the area, but previous access to the forest needed to be made through the Alice Creek drainage, an impossible task in the wintertime. If the purchase is made, all that area can now be accessed by a few miles walk.

"Once you get in there and take a look, it's all flat," Golie said. "Two or 3 miles in you'll need to make some choices," Golie said of the terrain, but for FWP, those choices will make taking care of the overpopulated elk herd much easier.

Golie said hunters and outdoorsmen had accessed the area in the 1950s, '60s and '70s and he knew many of them were looking forward to being in the area again.

"I'm going to Bighorn Lake, and I'm taking my family there," Golie said. "There are a lot of recreators who want to revisit a spectacular area ... it's an opportunity of a lifetime."

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Crime and Health Reporter

Reporter at the Helena Independent Record.

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