As Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) gauges the public’s appetite for converting 800 acres of Columbia Falls Aluminum Co. (CFAC) property into a Wildlife Management Area at the mouth of Bad Rock Canyon, a raft of local stakeholders is working to buoy financial support.
The Flathead Lakers and the Flathead Land Trust, as well as other partners in the Flathead River-to-Lake Initiative, have committed to raising a half-million dollars by August 2021 to help FWP secure $6.5 million in state and federal grants needed to purchase the property. To launch the funding efforts, the Flathead Lakers is auctioning off an 18-foot wooden boat restored by Greg McCormick, of Polson.
Having invested more than 600 hours restoring his 1953 Century Resorter, McCormick said the vessel is ready to navigate the choppy waters of Flathead Lake even as proponents of the conservation project anticipate smooth sailing for a deal that has already enjoyed strong support.
“The online auction is one of several exciting fundraisers we are planning over the next year,” Kate Sheridan, executive director of the Flathead Lakers, said. “The winner not only gets a beautiful boat, but also helps protect an incredible place in the Flathead.”
Working in concert with the Flathead Land Trust, FWP 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 (WMA) under the proposal, while providing free public recreation access.
“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 a report to state wildlife commissioners, who unanimously endorsed the project in August.
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 U.S. Forest Service Forest Legacy Program, FWP’s Habitat Montana program, and the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act, known as the Pittman–Robertson, could all be possible funding sources for this project, along with private funding raised by the Flathead Land Trust, including the wooden boat donation.
In a preliminary funding application to the Forest Legacy Program, the Bad Rock project ranked fifth in the nation out of 46 projects due to its high conservation values, according to FWP officials. The Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) is the funding source for the Forest Legacy Program.
A 30-day scoping period began on Oct. 30 and runs through Nov. 29, which will help FWP gauge public interest, identify potential issues that would require further analysis, and gain insight about refining the proposal.
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 uses.
“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 the report to state wildlife commissioners, the property contains 700 acres of healthy riparian forest, 80 acres of wetlands, and a mile-long 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.
“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.”
To read the full scoping notice, visit http://fwp.mt.gov/news/publicNotices. Submit either written or e-mailed comments by Nov. 29, 2020, to Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks; Kris Tempel, Habitat Conservation Biologist; Re: Proposed Wildlife Management Area; 490 N. Meridian Road; Kalispell, MT 59901, or firstname.lastname@example.org.