Supporters gathered at Larry Creek Group Site last week for a picnic in celebration of the recent successful land acquisition that will expand the Bass Creek Recreation Area (BCRA) to the north all the way to Sweeney Creek.
As USFS Regional Forester Leanne Marten put it, “Another 120 acres for the public to go out and enjoy, what better celebration than that.” She called the effort that culminated in the land purchase “very unusual” in terms of the number of agencies, organizations and private businesses and individuals who came together to make it happen and the complexities of the deal, which has been in the works at least since 2010.
Mike Mueller, Senior Land Program Manager for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, one of the central organizations in cinching the deal, said the theme of the project was, “Never give up!”
“A hundred and twenty acres may not seem like much,” said Mueller. “The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation is used to doing deals for 20,000 to 30,000 acres, but sometimes the smallest ones are the most important.”
The property abuts the north side of the Bass Creek Recreation Area. The BCRA nature and fire ecology trails are a popular destination for the area school system’s environmental education programs. The land acquisition will also protect current managed non-motorized recreational access via an existing trail that crosses the property. It will also provide additional access to the west and north into adjacent public land and new access to Sweeney Creek for fishing. The purchase consolidates existing federal ownership and provides connectivity across the Bass Creek, Larry Creek and Sweeney Creek watersheds, to the great benefit of wildlife.
The property is also important winter range for elk and mule deer, and provides habitat for white-tailed deer, wild turkey, grouse and many other small game birds and mammals. It has existing trails which have been used by the public for many years and hosts a diverse tree, shrub and plant community.
According to Stevensville District Ranger Tami Sabol, the Bass Creek Recreation Area boasts over 60,000 visitors a year, second only to Lake Como. The area is low elevation, easily accessible forest between Missoula and Hamilton. Sitting at the base of the beautiful Bitterroot Mountains, it lies adjacent to Bass Creek to the south and is approximately two miles east of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. It is a popular area for a variety of outdoor opportunities such as camping, picnicking, horseback riding, mountain biking, hiking, fishing, and cross-country skiing.
“It truly provides a quality ‘backyard community’ recreation experience for users of all ages,” said Sabol. She said that when she came on as the District Ranger in Stevensville, the project was “dead in the water.” But the extreme value of the parcel and the many uses it could afford drew a lot of interest and when she turned to the community for help the project really gained traction, and a coalition of groups was formed that would eventually carry the day as the Bitterroot National Forest was joined by the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, the National Wild Turkey Foundation, the Mule Deer Foundation, Bitterroot Back Country Horsemen, the Montana Fish and Wildlife Conservation Trust, and the landowners, Farmers State Bank.
The project was also a high regional priority for the Forest Service, according to Regional Forester Leanne Marten and they succeeded in getting a 1:1 match for the purchase from the Land & Water Conservation Fund Priority Recreational Access Funding.
According to representatives from Senator Tester’s and Senator Daines’ offices, Congress recently let the funding for the program expire for only the third time in the program’s fifty-year history. Both Senators are sponsoring a bi-partisan bill to permanently re-authorize the fund at an annual level of $900 million.
Mitch King, Executive Director of the Montana Fish and Wildlife Conservation Trust, noted that his trust fund over the last decade has grown from $14.5 million to $25 million and is now funding close to $1 million per year in new projects. He said all the projects are for providing access for hunters, anglers, horseback riders, and “people wanting to just get out and enjoy the outdoors.”
Ken Senn from Farmers State Bank, former owner of the property, noted how long and difficult the process had been. He said the bank, being a private business, has a different mission than that of the Forest Service.
“I can’t tell you how difficult it is to mesh these two types of institutions. Then, throw in some bank examiners and politicians and it gets very difficult,” he said, “like seven to eight years more difficult.”
Then he recalled that he was on this very site five years earlier with Stevensville District Ranger Tami Sabol, “and she began describing this day to me. She said she knew it would be a long and difficult process, but she told me this property obviously belongs in public hands.”
Turning to Sabol, he said, “I was awestruck at your optimism, your perseverance, and your courtesy throughout the process. It was the right thing to do. It was the direction and the end that we all wanted.”