The state Fish and Wildlife Commission on Thursday endorsed a proposal to purchase 800 acres of Columbia Falls Aluminum Co. (CFAC) land in an effort to protect critical wildlife habitat and ensure public recreational access at the mouth of Bad Rock Canyon on the Flathead River.
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, working in concert with the Flathead Land Trust, has proposed purchasing the forested parcel situated along 1.6 miles of the Flathead River near Columbia Falls. The property, which is highly developable and under increasing pressure by the rapidly growing town of Columbia Falls, would be protected as a Wildlife Management Area under the proposal, while providing free public recreation access as a designated Wildlife Management Area.
CFAC, a subsidiary of Glencore, a multi-national company, has owned the land and retained it as open space accessible by the public for decades. The company has decided to sell the property, which is located just east of Columbia Falls south of the Flathead River and does not include the former aluminum plant, which is the site of a Superfund-designated environmental cleanup.
The property serves as winter range for elk, moose and white-tailed deer, and the proposal to purchase it would safeguard a vital travel corridor for bull trout and grizzly bears, both of which are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
The property also provides opportunities for youth and disabled hunters to harvest elk and white-tailed deer just minutes from Columbia Falls, which would be lost if it were developed. In recent years, a trail has been constructed on the land by Gateway to Glacier Trail, Inc., a local nonprofit group granted a revocable license by CFAC to allow access for hikers, bikers, birdwatchers, and others.
Under FWP ownership, public access could be managed to preserve wildlife presence and hunting opportunities while allowing compatible trail and property use.
“We are extremely pleased to be able to work with Flathead Land Trust and FWP and their goal to purchase a portion of the CFAC property,” Cheryl Driscoll, of Glencore, CFAC’s parent company, said in a statement. “From the many conversations we have had with members of the Trust, we know the property on the south side of the Flathead River is very important to the group and its commitment to the area. This project is a benefit to Columbia Falls, its residents and Flathead County.”
According to a report to state wildlife commissioners, the “Bad Rock Canyon Project” contains 700 acres of healthy riparian forest, 80 acres of wetlands, and a mile of a warm spring creek. It is located at a focal point of landscape connectivity just downstream of Bad Rock Canyon, a geographic pinch point where the Flathead River flows through a narrow canyon between the Swan and Whitefish mountain ranges.
The project would conserve key habitat for 43 Species of Greatest Conservation Need, as well as 192 species of birds for breeding, wintering and as a critical stopover to refuel on their migration, including 59 species identified as conservation priorities. In addition, the wetlands and quality riparian habitat on the property help safeguard the healthy function and water quality of the Flathead River and Flathead Lake. The project would also add to a 12,000-acre network of conserved land along 50 miles of the Flathead River and Flathead Lake downstream of Columbia Falls.
“I am beyond excited to see this amazing piece of the valley preserved for the enjoyment and use by the Columbia Falls community and all Flathead Valley residents,” Darin Fisher, Columbia Falls City Councilor and local business owner, said. “I couldn’t be more thankful to the Flathead Land Trust, FWP, and the countless folks who have been working behind the scenes for years to preserve and expand public access on this unique property.”
The project could also create new public access and recreational opportunities near Columbia Falls as the land would be owned and managed by FWP in the future. FWP’s Wildlife Management Areas are managed with wildlife and wildlife habitat conservation as the foremost concern, but FWP will seek public input on the types of potential public access opportunities, such as a trail for hikers, bikers and birdwatchers, and continuation of the youth and disabled hunting opportunities for deer and elk.
“This project creates a unique opportunity to protect wildlife habitat and public access on the doorstep of the Gateway to Glacier and along the Flathead River,” FWP Regional Supervisor Jim Williams said. “We appreciate our partners, CFAC and the Flathead Land Trust, for working towards a common goal of land stewardship that will benefit everyone into the future.”
CFAC has allowed FWP and the Flathead Land Trust a two-year window to complete the project. The U.S. Forest Service Forest Legacy Program, Habitat Montana and Pittman-Robertson money could all be possible funding sources for this project, along with private funding raised by the Flathead Land Trust.
“If the project fails, the property would most likely be quickly sold, subdivided, and developed into a high-density neighborhood that would include highly sought-after riverfront lots,” according to the report to commissioners.