Zekes Meadow
U.S. Forest Service photo

A small but significant meadow on the edge of the Sapphire Mountains near Philipsburg became public last week in the first 2016 use of Land and Water Conservation Fund priority recreation access dollars.

“A lot of intricate public trails go through that area, and they are now linked together with public access,” said Mark Holyoak of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, which helped put the deal together. “This was an opportunity to protect and conserve some important elk habitat.”

The 800-acre parcel includes an old homestead and part of the headwaters of Rock Creek near Moose Meadows. In addition to hunting activity, the land supports nearly a mile of bull trout habitat, a Westslope cutthroat trout fishery and source water for the Rock Creek drainage.

The deal came together in two phases, with one purchase of 440 acres last December. That was paid for with $460,000 in LWCF money plus $50,000 from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and $150,000 from the Montana Fish and Wildlife Conservation Fund.

The second installment of 360 acres was completed on April 5, with LWCF providing the final $716,000.

“The landowners were willing to sell the entire property in order for the Forest Service to be able to extend public access across the land,” said Pintler District Ranger Charlene Bucha. “This access connects to an extensive system of trails within the Sapphire Wilderness Study Area and secures backcountry recreation for horseback riding, hiking, fishing, camping and hunting.”

Congress has struggled to give long-term stability to the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which was initially passed in 1964. It's currently on a three-year interim authorization, with the Senate recently passing a bill giving it permanent status. The House has not voted on that measure yet. The fund is allowed to receive up to $900 million in royalties from federally owned off-shore oil and gas leases. Congress has rarely appropriated that amount, providing about $400 million last year.

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.