ROCK CREEK – The land along the mouth of Rock Creek – western Montana’s vaunted blue-ribbon trout stream – will remain undeveloped, thanks to a deal between the owners and several local conservation groups.

Five Valleys Land Trust director Grant Kier announced the $1.6 million purchase at the group’s annual banquet on Saturday. The land trust is celebrating its 40th anniversary.

“With any luck, we’ll acquire this by December,” Kier said. “It may take years to make it real on the ground.”

The Confluence Project, as it’s known, will buy 201 acres of land bordering the Clark Fork River just off the Rock Creek freeway exit. The property had been slated for subdivision back in 2004, and attracted vigorous community debate over the years.

“For a while, the proposals were coming at us fast and furious,” Missoula County Commissioner Bill Carey said. “It provoked a lot of people to do something about it. It’s a worldwide-known blue-ribbon trout stream.”

The Clark Fork Coalition and Trout Unlimited are also helping with the project. Coalition director Karen Knudsen said her organization will concentrate on restoring some of the habitat, such as a large artificial pond built near the creek.

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“Rock Creek has kept the Clark Fork alive for the last 150 years, as the river was pressed into service carrying mining waste,” Knudsen said. “It’s been the source of clean cold water and a place where fish could go when the Clark Fork suffered from pulses of toxic metals.”

Kier said LEMB Co. LLC, the real estate investment company that owned the property, started talking about ways to switch from a 36-home development to a conservation project about a year ago. Previously, parts of the property had been marketed for more than $5 million.

“It’s been a process of getting to know each other,” Kier said of negotiations with LEMB Co.’s Mike Barnes. “People have been trying to find a conservation solution out there for almost two decades. When we found we had a vision we could both share, they started to get excited. So we thought we should get this done at a time when the price makes sense.”

The project would dovetail with two other conservation easements that already protect the lower reach of Rock Creek, including the confluence with the Clark Fork. The Rock Creek Trust has been working since 1986 to protect Rock Creek from power lines and other development in the drainage. It is now part of Five Valleys Land Trust.

Kier said FVLT would own the LEMB Co. property, with a future plan to sell it to an appropriate conservation entity.

“Under our ownership we would intend to have public access, but not until we finish the restoration,” Kier said.

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Restoration work may remove a 10-foot-high berm that shields the property from Rock Creek Road. The pond could have several fates, from being left in place to complete removal, to transformation into a wetland that might attract migrating birds.

There are also hopes to build some kind of visitor center, as well as trails into the surrounding national forest land. Kier said many people never realized the property includes a strip of land on the east side of Rock Creek Road along the Clark Fork.

“This is going to be a stretch for us financially,” Kier said. “We want to give the community a chance to make it happen.”

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