AUGUSTA — The new sign said, “Trail 229.”
It marked the beginning of a recently completed trail connecting to an existing two-track leading upward into the forest.
Once they reached the top and stood on a ridge watching Falls Creek splashing over the edge of a deep drop in the rocky gorge, some people oohed and awed and pulled out cell phones to take pictures. One person sat under a tree, quietly enjoying the scene. A couple had a moment, reaching their arms around each other’s back and standing closely as they took it all in.
It’s been 15 years since the public has been legally allowed to come to this special place along Falls Creek, 30 miles southwest of here, according to the Great Falls Tribune .
The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation purchased 442 acres of the Rocky Mountain Front land from rancher Dan Barrett for $2.4 million.
On July 31, RMEF turned the land over to the U.S. Forest Service.
The sign, erected by the U.S. Forest Service, is proof of the permanent access the public can now enjoy forever.
“Today, we come together here in this place with hearts filled with joy that Falls Creek and so much land adjoining it and beyond will now be open to the public to be enjoyed by so many,” said the Rev. John Erickson of Augusta Community Church.
The new public trail is not just a gateway to Falls Creek and the waterfall, which is window dressing: Another 26,000 acres of Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest adjoins the 442 acres, which is now accessible by hunters, hikers and horseback riders.
On Tuesday, 185 people gathered near the banks of the Dearborn River, with Steamboat Mountain as a backdrop. The high-pitched whistle of bull elk rang through the canyon, thanks to RMEF employees mimicking the sound with bugle calls.
They were there to celebrate the new access to the iconic landscape and to recognize those who made it happen.
To kick things off, Erickson quoted Genesis and its references to the beginning and descriptions of the heavens and the earth and the responsibility of people to serve as stewards of God’s creation.
“The best thing you can do is let the public have it,” the low-key Barrett said as he leaned against a Kowasaki Mule utility vehicle before the start of the fanfare.
Across Falls Creek from Barrett’s former property, 28 cabins and homes are sprinkled in the trees.
Barrett, 66, could have sold to a private party.
“They kept this property pristine,” said Bill Avey, supervisor of Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest.
Elk, deer and grizzly bears roam the hills. Fish and riparian habitat along a mile of Falls Creek and a quarter mile of the Dearborn River also was secured in the deal.
When the tentative sale was announced last October, the parties said they had given themselves three years to raise the money to complete the purchase.
“But they got it done in one year,” said Mike Munoz, district ranger for Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest’s Rocky Mountain Ranger District. “That’s how enthusiastic folks were to get it done.”
The way Munoz sees it, the public really got more than 26,000 acres for $2.4 million because of the access that Barrett’s land, now in public hands, provides to the adjoining public forest.
One of the neatest parts of the sale is the access to a quarter mile of the Dearborn River, Munoz said. The Rocky Mountain Ranger District and FWP will work to together to develop boating access.
For now, dispersed camping is allowed on the north side of Dearborn Canyon Road, between the road and the river, but plans are in the works to develop a campground at the trailhead, which is on the south side of the road. As the crow flies, the nearest campground on the national forest is 14 miles away.
Another perk is improved access to forest lands during the winter because the Dearborn Canyon Road, maintained by Lewis and Clark County, is regularly plowed.
“So this trailhead will be open more readily for winter activities,” Munoz said.
The new trail will provide access to the upper reaches of Falls Creek four to five miles into wilderness designated as part of the 2014 Heritage Act, Munoz added. And those who use the Alice Creek trailhead on the Lincoln Ranger District will now be able to park a vehicle there, and one at Falls Creek, and make a trip over the Continental Divide.
“The U.S. public is going to enjoy this for a long time,” said Andy Hunthausen, a Lewis and Clark County commissioner.
The largest contribution toward the sale, $1.4 million, came from residents of Lewis and Clark County.
In a 2010 vote, residents approved a $10 million bond for a new open lands program to preserve and protect wildlife habitat, water, farms and ranches and access. A lands program committee reviews applications and passes recommendations to the Lewis and Clark County Commission.
This past winter, commissioners approved contributing the $1.4 million to the Falls Creek purchase.
“The depth of the partnerships and the value to the citizens in Lewis and Clark County stood out immensely,” Hunthausen said of the Falls Creek project.
It would have taken the entire three years of the tentative purchase agreement to raise the funding if the county had not stepped forward, Barrett said.
Another $255,000 came from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, which was created by Congress in 1964 using royalties from offshore oil and gas production. The money is allocated to a variety of conservation and recreation purposes. One of the main goals is protecting lakes and rivers and forests from development.
U.S. Sens. Steve Daines and Jon Tester of Montana, who serve on the Senate Interior and Environment Subcommittee, secured reprogramming of the $255,000 in LWCF funding, which had been earmarked for another project but unused.
“Anytime something like this happens, there’s a lot of moving pieces on the chess board,” Daines said.
It is unusual, Daines said, that in the case of the Falls Creek purchase, local county government took the lead role, with the federal government playing a supporting role.
The philanthropy of RMEF and other groups that contributed financially also stood out, Daines said.
“You’re setting an example of what can be accomplished when we put ourselves ahead of others,” said Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney, adding the purchase comes at a time when disputes over management of natural resources are growing.
On Tuesday, tables set with glassware and covered with white tablecloths looked out of place in the parking area of new public Falls Creek trailhead adjacent to the forest.
Those who attended the celebration ate a catered lunch as Charlie and Theresa Taylor of Taylor Agency, LLC of Augusta, Barrett’s realtors, playing a guitar and banjo, provided the musical entertainment. Theresa also sang the national anthem.
“We got talked into that, too,” Charlie Taylor said of the music duties.
“We feel pretty good about being a part of it,” he added.
RMEF has purchased larger blocks of land, as much as 10,000 acres, but in the last few years it has focused on key smaller parcels that provide access to additional public land such as the Falls Creek, said Blake Henning, RMEF’s chief conservation officer.
“It stands out in terms of the amount of acreage it’s going to improve public access to,” Henning said.
About $400,000 was raised through private donations from conservation organizations and individuals.
“We’re saving it for someone else to enjoy,” Wynne Gillis of Bozeman said.
Gillis, and her husband, John, retirees in their 80s, owned a medical product manufacturing business.
They spent 40 years, hunting, fishing, camping and horseback riding in the backcountry.
The couple contributed $50,000 toward the purchase of the Falls Creek land.
“Because once this country is gone,” Wynne Gillis said, “it’s gone.”
They had never visited Falls Creek before Tuesday.
Sue Della Rossa, a volunteer with the Giant Springs chapter of RMEF, helped remove a cover for a new display explaining how the Rocky Mountain Front access came to be.
“Partnership in Action,” it reads. The display will be erected at the trailhead so those passing Trail 229 will know the story.
“This will bring some healing to the canyon if you know the history,” Della Rossa said to the crowd.
In 2013, across Falls Creek from what was then Barrett’s land, Joe Campbell shot and killed Tim Newman near a locked gate on private land that had been at the center of an dispute because it was the only access to public land in the area. The two were residents of the Falls Creek subdivision.
Della Rossa and her husband, Dan, were good friends with Newman. They view creating the new access Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest as part of the healing process for residents of the area who were terrorized by the shooting.
Giving up the property is bittersweet, Barrett said.
He has fond memories of riding with his father and moving cattle here. The family used to allow some access, via permission, but closed if off about 15 years ago. Barrett said the family grew tired of dealing with members of the 1 percent of the public that illegally camped in or visited the area or left debris behind. It bothered him that in all the years the family allowed access and cleared trails and picked up debris he never got a thank you.
“It was a lot of work and I don’t have to deal with the public,” he said. “Let the Forest Service do it. They are prepared to do it.”
Bryan Golie, a criminal investigator with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks who spends 30 percent of his time working on public access issues, called Barrett in 2016 about allowing hunters access to his land as part of an effort to manage a large migrating elk herd in the area.
At the time, Barrett wasn’t interested.
“I never bothered him again,” Golie said.
In the spring of 2017, Barrett, through his realtor, called Golie back. He was thinking about selling.
Golie served as a conduit between Barrett and Mike Mueller of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.
“Just a great people,” Golie said of the Barretts. “Traditional landowners. Old school. Where a handshake still means something.”
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