SUPERIOR - A massive land deal south of Alberton could produce Montana's second-largest state park.

The paperwork could close as early as March in the $14 million transaction between Montana's Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the Nature Conservancy for most of the Fish Creek drainage. The property comprises about 41,000 acres stretching from Alberton Gorge south to Lolo Hot Springs.

FWP plans to spend between $2.5 million and $3 million in state park funds and another $11 million in federal wildlife conservation dollars to buy the land from the Nature Conservancy. That group, in turn, bought it from Plum Creek Timber Co. last year as part of the Montana Legacy Project.

"We usually take a year and a half or two years to do a project this size," said FWP regional supervisor Mack Long. "We're doing this in six months."

The purchase makes all kinds of sense for FWP, according to Long. True, it has been heavily logged and much of it burned in a 2003 forest fire. But its location and long-term potential are rich.

On the wildlife side, the drainage forms an animal travel corridor between the Mission Mountains and Bob Marshall wilderness areas to the east and the proposed Great Burn Wilderness to the west. It harbors a number of Montana's rarest carnivores, including wolverine, fisher and marten. The creek is a spawning site for bull and westslope cutthroat trout. In 2008, game wardens logged 31,988 hunter days there. It has at least seven regular elk winter ranges.

FWP already has two popular but small fishing access sites along Fish Creek. The southern Forks site at Bear Creek might be expanded to become a horse facility, with hitching posts, corrals and space for trailers.


But the big project would be a 6,864-acre state park with links to Alberton Gorge and a sizable public campground a few miles south of Interstate 90. FWP parks manager Lee Bastian said if completed, it would be the second-largest state park in Montana. Makoshika State Park near Glendive is the biggest at 11,531 acres.

"It's got the potential to be a real economic driver for Mineral County," Bastian said. While the area gets lots of use now, most visitors arrive with their coolers full and leave with enough gas to make it home at the end of the day. Creating enticements that make them stay overnight or longer would put more of those tourists in Mineral County businesses.

Several people in the audience at a public meeting Wednesday morning wondered about the other side of the business coin - the cost of maintaining, protecting and improving all the new amenities. Rancher Ollie St. Clair said local law enforcement is already challenged to patrol Fish Creek for keggers and other trouble.

"We pick up a dump-truck load of garbage every year, just on our property," St. Clair said. As a building contractor who has built similar parks in surrounding states, he wanted assurance the new projects would have a budget for long-term operation.

Long agreed that many of the dream projects still need lots of wide-awake research and public buy-in. One big factor in FWP's favor was its requirement to pay local property taxes - something greatly on the minds of the Mineral County commissioners, who attended the meeting as well.

"About 87 percent of this county is Forest Service, 5 percent is state and what little bit that's left - Plum Creek was the biggest private landowner," said Commissioner B.J. McComb. "We didn't want it going to the Forest Service, and we didn't want to see it developed into private parcels where it could be locked up. I think this will be a positive thing."

FWP officials hope to have more concrete details about the land management and park design at a public hearing on the project Feb. 2 in Superior.

Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at rchaney@missoulian.com.


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