Environment

Bidding for Bad Rock

Local conservation groups launch auction to benefit conservation project on Middle Fork Flathead River

By Tristan Scott
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

The benefits would be manifold for anyone willing to bestow financial support on the Bad Rock Canyon Conservation project — they could win a guided fly-fishing trip on the Middle Fork Flathead River; or a fossil-hunting expedition with an expert from the Smithsonian; or a hike in Glacier National Park with renowned naturalist, author and grizzly bear expert Doug Chadwick.

Moreover, they’ll have helped furnish permanent protections on 772-acre chunk of property along the Middle Fork Flathead River, which is currently owned by the Columbia Falls Aluminum Co. (CFAC), but is at risk of privatization as development pressure increases throughout the Flathead Valley.

Fortunately for advocates of preserving open spaces to benefit wildlife and the public, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP), working in concert with the Flathead Land Trust and the Flathead Lakers, has proposed purchasing the forested parcel spanning 1.6 miles of the Flathead River near Columbia Falls.

Fly-fishing, fossil-hunting and frolicking through Glacier along with vaunted guides and naturalists are just several items available to bidders through an online auction curated by the Flathead Land Trust and the Flathead Lakers in an effort to furnish the Bad Rock Canyon Conservation Project with its final fundraising boost. 

The local nonprofit organizations have joined forces to help FWP purchase the property just east of Columbia Falls, which would be managed as a new Wildlife Management Area and protected from development. Over $6.8 million has been secured toward the purchase, but the partners must raise $270,000 by December to complete the purchase. They are looking to the community to help raise funds to close the gap to complete the purchase.

The land is significant because of its unique location at the mouth of the narrow Bad Rock Canyon where the Flathead River first enters the Flathead Valley.

“This lowland property provides important habitat and a connectivity corridor between the Whitefish and Swan mountain ranges for elk, deer, grizzly bears, and a wide range of other wildlife species,” FWP Habitat Conservation Biologist Kris Tempel said. “That includes numerous grizzly and black bears, mountain lions, wolverine, and other wide-ranging carnivores. A herd of elk lingers here in the winter.”

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

It is not only at a key location for wildlife but also for people. The project would maintain public access on the doorstep of Glacier National Park, including a three-mile long trail for hikers and bikers that is being constructed by the nonprofit Gateway to Glacier Trail group.

It is also a critical piece of a larger puzzle in sustaining clean water in rivers and lakes downstream. 

“Clean melting snow from Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness flows into our rivers, but after it reaches Columbia Falls, it is our responsibility to keep it clean,” Steve Rosso, a board member with the Flathead Lakers, said. 

The property is also in a prime location for riverfront homes should the partners not raise the funds by December to purchase it. 

“That’s the alternative reality that looms over our rapidly growing valley,” according to a press release from the nonprofit organizations. “If conserved, this land will ensure newcomers and future generations can call this beautiful place home while also enjoying the very landscape and incredible experiences that give Montana its distinctive reputation.”

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.

Donations received through July 15 will be matched 1:1. Bidding for the online auction will begin April 5 and end on April 30 with at least 10 exclusive outdoor fun packages available.

For more information on the Bad Rock Canyon Conservation Project, visit www.flatheadrivertolake.org

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