On Monday, December 10, the Montana Fish & Wildlife Commission unanimously approved a proposal made by Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) to accept fee title to 6.25 acres at the Stevensville Bridge to manage and develop as a Fishing Access Site (FAS). The land is being donated specifically for that purpose by Myla Yahraus, current owner of the historic Fort Owen Ranch property. The Commission received 24 public comments concerning the proposal. Twenty-two explicitly supported the proposal and none expressed any opposition.
“There was a lot of positive sentiment around the work that was done, and Myla’s graciousness to create a space to resolve some issues and the Stevensville community who were really helpful in developing a proposal that we could bring back to the commission,” said FWP Region 2 Supervisor Randy Arnold. “It was broad support on a lot of fronts.”
Arnold said that a number of elements in the plan for development of the site were added as a result of public comment. He said working with the Stevensville community over parking helped a lot. A public road to the Town’s River Park runs through the FAS property. By sharing some of the town’s parking spaces, FWP can protect a little more of the riparian area along the river front and alleviate traffic issues at the entrance from the highway cut-off road. Public comment also led to the addition of a separate entranceway for people accessing off the pathway for bikes and pedestrian traffic from the vehicle traffic that is entering. A separation of the boat launch area from the swimming area using large stones is also being considered.
There were a couple of objections to allowing camping, according to Arnold, but overall there was overarching support for camping, so the plan calls for the creation of some hardened campsites, with no electricity or other services, separated from the entranceway traffic and the parking and boat and trailer use area.
The next steps include officially closing on the property deal and initiating a bid process with a scope of work and request for bid proposals, but first the details of the plan and designs need to be finalized.
Arnold said proposed developments include a designated parking area, a gravel access road, a primitive camping area, a concrete vault latrine, some boundary and interior fencing, some bicycle/pedestrian and ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) trail connections, and informational signs. The existing area where boaters have traditionally launched will continue to serve as the designated launch. The launch area has several tiered natural gravel rises, which accommodate launching at all water levels. In addition to improving recreational opportunities along the Bitterroot River, development of the site will provide an opportunity to improve the riparian vegetation on the site by revegetating portions of the streambank denuded by past heavy recreational use.
The pioneered boat launch and fishing access site was used by the public for many years without contention, but had become a focal point for dissension in recent years and was finally closed off by the previous landowner with concrete blocks to prevent use by the public. Thankful for the incredibly generous offer by the new landowner, Myla Yahraus, suggestions were made to name the fishing access site after her. But Yahraus declined that suggestion. One thing she insisted on, however, was that the land remain an FAS in perpetuity and that it be taken care of by FWP. The deed will include a reversionary clause that requires FWP to develop and manage the land as a public FAS; if FWP fails to do so, the land would revert to the private landowner. In accepting the donation, FWP would also agree to develop a management plan specific to the development and maintenance of the FAS and to meet regularly with the landowner regarding the plan.
Arnold said that the site was a critical FAS along the Bitterroot River, providing the only developed boat launch site on the 15-mile float from the Bell Crossing FAS to the Florence FAS.
Construction on the Stevensville site will begin this coming spring before high water and continue for a longer period in the fall when major recreation use dies down.
Dale Burk, who testified at the Fish and Wildlife Commission meeting on behalf of the Ravalli County Fish and Wildlife Association, said that it was a great day for the Stevensville community and everybody else in the valley and for the other people who come here from other places all over the nation and even the world to recreate on the Bitterroot River.