Environment

Funding a Future for Bad Rock Canyon

Conservation advocates inch closer to purchasing 800 acres of CFAC land along Flathead River, but need fundraising support to ensure permanent recreation access

By Tristan Scott
Aerial view of the Bad Rock Canyon Conservation Project, which encompasses 800 acres along the south bank of the Flathead River east of Columbia Falls as seen on March 9, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The fundraising effort to conserve nearly 800 acres of Columbia Falls Aluminum Co. (CFAC) land at the mouth of Bad Rock Canyon on the Flathead River has been gaining momentum since the state Fish and Wildlife Commission endorsed the project last summer, with advocates drawing financial support from major state and federal funding sources.

A final fundraising push is needed to secure the remaining money, however, without which the landowners could sell the property off for development to the next-highest bidder.

“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 last August.

To avoid that outcome, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP), working in concert with the Flathead Land Trust, has proposed purchasing the forested parcel spanning 1.6 miles of the Flathead River near Columbia Falls. The property, which is highly developable and under increasing pressure from the rapidly growing town of Columbia Falls, would be owned and managed by FWP as a Wildlife Management Area, while also providing free public recreation access in perpetuity.

Currently, the Flathead Land Trust has raised approximately $5.5 million of the $7.1 million needed to purchase the 772-acre Bad Rock Canyon Conservation Project property. 

A creek runs through the Bad Rock Canyon Conservation Project area, which encompasses 800 acres along the south bank of the Flathead River east of Columbia Falls as seen on March 9, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

“Most of this funding has come from large federal and state grants and we hope much of the remaining needed funding will come from a state grant,” according to Laura Katzman of the Land Trust. “However, these federal and state grants require matching funds. We have about $350,000 left to raise in needed match [grants] and we have some exciting news. Three generous donors have offered to contribute up to $100,000 toward this needed match if we can raise $100,000 from community members by July 15.”

To help the Flathead Land Trust meet its fundraising challenge and obtain the matching funding, Katzman encouraged supporters to donate online at flatheadlandtrust.org or by sending a check to Flathead Land Trust, with a note that the donation is for the Bad Rock Canyon Conservation Project. 

The land at the center of the project is owned by CFAC, a subsidiary of Glencore, a multi-national company that has retained the parcel 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. It also provides opportunities for youth and disabled hunters to harvest elk and white-tailed deer just minutes from Columbia Falls. 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.

“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 “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.

A creek runs through the Bad Rock Canyon Conservation Project area, which encompasses 800 acres along the south bank of the Flathead River east of Columbia Falls as seen on March 9, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

“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, a Columbia Falls city councilor and owner of Backslope Brewing, 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, with funding derived from the U.S. Forest Service Forest Legacy Program, Habitat Montana and Pittman-Robertson money, as well as other private funding raised by the Flathead Land Trust. 

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