Advice for FWP

By Beacon Staff

Over Independence Day weekend, the news hit that Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) has decided to “fast track” buying the so-called Spotted Dog ranch near Deer Lodge and turning it into a 38,000-acre Wildlife Management Area (WMA). The money for the buy ($16.6 million) is sourced from Montana’s Natural Resource Damage Program (NRDP), funded by damages won in court from Atlantic Richfield (which bought Anaconda Copper) totaling about $400 million, plus another $150 million from ASARCO.

You can check out FWP’s proposal and Environmental Assessment (EA) at http://fwp.mt.gov/news/publicnotices/notice.html?action=getPublicNotice&id=2426. There’s one public hearing, at the Community Center in Deer Lodge on July 14.

Spotted Dog is 27,616 acres of private fee land straight south of Avon, mixed in with a lot of school trust ground, around 10,000 acres. It’s been a private ranch since the 1870s or so, with little to no public access or hunting.

There is no question that Spotted Dog, which is tucked away off the highways out of sight, is vital for wildlife. I’ve seen part of it, the long way around via a windy Forest Service road out of Elliston. At the end the land opens up and spills west across the Deer Lodge valley to the Pintlars. Cool!

It would be a shame for Spotted Dog to become yet another uber-trophy “ranch” subdivision – no wonder FWP lusts after it.

The land is now owned by YT Timber LLC, which is associated with RY Timber, a private firm with mills in Townsend and Livingston. RY/YT bought it from trophy-ranch developer Rock Creek Cattle Company a few years ago so RY could log Spotted Dog’s 8,000 acres of timber. The YT/RCCC deal contained an option clause allowing RCCC to buy Spotted Dog back. Inquiries by the FWP’s appraisal contractor set the option, which expires in November 2011, at $9 million.

From a business standpoint, the sale-with-buyback made perfect sense. RCCC got cash to concentrate on its headliner project nearer Deer Lodge, while RY got the wood it needed along with full control of the property. If the market stayed hot, hot, hot, RCCC would be ready to go to another phase, and RY/YT would get its cash back.

Trouble is, markets for both wood and real estate have tanked. So, with RY/YT essentially finished with harvest (characterized in FWP’s EA as “considerable removal since 2005”), RCCC is not interested in a buy-back. RY/YT is stuck with a turkey it didn’t really want in the first place.

‘Tis better to stick FWP with the turkey, right? Yep. I penciled it out. In a nutshell, every extra “new” hunter opportunity from this proposal will cost a ridiculous $266 per hunter-day, a subsidy of $1,600 for each six-day hunter lucky enough to draw.

Is there a smarter way? Of course: Offer YT the $9 million they would have gotten from RCCC had everything gone to plan, and buy Spotted Dog.

Then, task FWP staff with analyzing Spotted Dog for select, small parcels to sell on the open market. The purpose is to recover most, if not all, of Spotted Dog’s purchase, while retaining the vast, vast majority of productivity as wildlife habitat.

Think about it. Game doesn’t care about the view. Animals care about cover, feed, water and harassment. The private sector (RCCC, the Sun Ranch, and others) have had great success at maximizing cash value while sacrificing little-to-no habitat effectiveness. They did so through enforceable covenants and deed restrictions.

Could the same be done with Spotted Dog? Sure, with a twist. The parcels sold wouldn’t carry an exclusive-access entitlement. The Spotted Dog WMA would be public lands in the conventional sense.

Honestly, how many sportspeople would leap at the chance to buy one to five acres of non-critical ground in such a prime spot? Plenty – and they’d pay plenty, too.

More important, the cash raised would be plowed back into NRDP’s Clark Fork remediation fund and re-directed into ongoing restoration programs elsewhere in the basin that would otherwise not be funded.

Hmmm. I should be on the FWP commission, shouldn’t I?

Related: Breaking Down the Numbers