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WOODS BAY - You can certainly find rocks on the 440 acres of mountainside around Cougar Gulch near this Flathead Lake Community.

Now, there's a hard place, too.

Caught between them is the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, charged with providing stewardship for the state trust land, and also managing it in the best way possible for its beneficiary.

Faced with limited access that DNRC says makes it difficult, if not impossible, to control recreation and noxious weeds, and perform fire mitigation on the land - and given that the land has produced a bare trickle of revenue - the department has proposed selling the property and purchasing something else.

That has been met by overwhelming opposition from local residents.

George Darrow of nearby Bigfork describes it as "a one-of-a-kind canyon that cuts down over 800 feet deep into the north end of the Mission Mountains. Yes, cougars are known to inhabit the area, along with black and grizzly bears, elk, lynx and the snowshoe rabbits that are their special prey. Falcons nest high on the cliffs along the canyon wall."

Greg Poncin, Kalispell unit manager with DNRC, doesn't argue the point.

"This 440 acres is a beautiful tract of land," he says. "But we don't have the access we need to meet our mission."

That mission is not limited to managing the land for public use.

The 440 acres is a miniscule amount of the 5.2 million acres of state trust land managed by DNRC for public schools and universities.

Money made off those lands - from grazing fees and other agricultural or oil and gas leases, timber sales, real estate uses and the like - help to fund public education in Montana.

The bulk of the 5.2 million acres is designated for K-12 schools, but revenue from some goes directly to state colleges and universities.

In the case of the 440 acres near Woods Bay, the beneficiary is Montana Tech.

DNRC manages 59,600 acres held in trust for Tech, land that produces $1 million a year for the school, according to Chancellor Frank Gilmore. Indeed, the biggest revenue producer every year for Tech is an even smaller parcel, about 360 acres, just a few miles away from the Woods Bay property at Echo Lake, where cabin leases bring in significant amounts of money.

But, Gilmore says, revenue from the Woods Bay parcel, in the form of timber sales, has contributed maybe $2,000 in the last 100 years.

"I went to the Land Board in about 2000 and asked them to sell the (Woods Bay) property," Gilmore says, plus a similarly sized piece of state trust land on the west side of the lake. The combined market value at the time, Gilmore says, was approximately $8 million.

The board, made up of the governor, superintendent of public instruction, attorney general, secretary of state and state auditor, rejected the proposal.

Gilmore stressed he has not asked for, and is not involved with, the current proposal to sell the land, which in this case would be in order to purchase other property better suited to producing revenue and being managed.

"Frankly, for Tech, it's a major PR issue," the chancellor says. "At Woods Bay, here's valuable land Š and the constitution is clear, that it should be used to the maximum benefit of its beneficiary. But I can understand people there wanting to keep it the way it is, and seeing it as Tech trying to sell the land out from under them. It's a lose-lose situation for us as it's currently set up."

For Darrow, one of 350 local residents to comment on the proposed sale, the vast majority of them in opposition, the way to win is to have the 440 acres designated as a Montana Natural Area.

"This is a habitat rich in wildlife and varied natural vegetation within a unique geologic feature carved by a Pinedale glacier in the terminal phase of the late Pleistocene Ice Age," he has written.

An adjoining 646 acres of the Flathead National Forest was designated in 1991 as a Research Natural Area, Darrow says. Having the state add 440 acres as a natural area makes sense.

"It is inconceivable that the state of Montana would ignore the educational and environmental values of a Montana Cougar Canyon Natural Area developed in concert with the adjoining Flathead National Forest Research Natural Area," Darrow says. "It is also inconceivable that DNRC would ignore the 300 written comments that they received after the April 17 meeting in opposition to the proposed sale."

The department is not, says Mary Sexton, DNRC director.

"I want to emphasize we are reaching out to the community," Sexton says. "We want to work together to find a middle ground that works for both the agency and local interests."

Poncin says Darrow's proposal "might be a good fit."

Other options, he says, might include a sale that includes a conservation easement on the property that would limit development, preserve much of the natural beauty of the land and continue to provide public access to Estes Lake.

"That would protect what the community holds dear, and still allow the state to purchase lands where we can complete our mission," Poncin says.

"I hope it's clear we recognize the community is in opposition" to an outright sale, he goes on. "We've heard them loud and clear - that's why we're having the meeting on the 12th, to talk about what are some of the alternatives."

Montana's Land Banking Act, which provides for the sale of various parcels of state land, and using the proceeds to purchase other land, easements or improvements that are likely to provide greater or equal trust revenue, is what's in play.

Darrow argues the Legislature's intent was to allow the replacement of low revenue-producing grazing lands in eastern Montana, not what he calls a "treasure" of public land in the Mission Mountains.

The constitution, he says, demands the state administer the trust land not only in the best interests of the beneficiary, but to the best advantage of the state and its people as well.

"People obviously prefer it stay in state ownership," Darrow says.

Gilmore, the Tech chancellor, calls state trust properties "pseudo-public lands." They are indeed owned by the people of Montana, he says, but their primary purpose is to provide funding for the public's schools, not recreational opportunities.

"DNRC does a wonderful job, given that they're trying to serve several masters," Gilmore says. "They have to provide for the beneficiaries of the land, according to the constitution; they answer to the public in general terms of making available recreational opportunities on what many perceive to be public land, and they answer to the Land Board as well."

"Our mission is really clear," Poncin says. "To try to balance, to the extent we can, the demands of the public for recreation and access, with the demand of producing revenue for public schools."

While the Woods Bay acreage doesn't have access onto it for DNRC to manage the land in the way it would like, the public can get to it by foot, from a county road on the west side or a Forest Service trail on the east.

The Land Banking Program, Poncin says, tells DNRC to manage the 5.2 million acres under its care like assets in a portfolio.

"If they're isolated or produce little revenue, we're supposed to divest those and acquire acreage that can bring in more money for schools, and allow more public access," he says.

While he didn't have up-to-date figures on hand, Poncin said the last time he saw numbers, the state averaged the following revenue per acre off its trust lands:

$1.25 for dryland grazing

$12 for timber sales

$14 for irrigated agricultural purposes.

$55 for real estate uses (such as leases for cabins)

By law, 75 percent of the lands nominated for sale under the Land Banking Act must have no public access.

"By definition, the public can walk on" the Woods Bay property, Poncin says. "However, given that it's under-producing land in terms of revenue, and the problems of managing it, that makes it eligible."

But, he admits, few people in the Woods Bay area seem to like a sale made on the basis of the Land Banking statute.

"So let's put our heads together, and try to figure out what works," Poncin says. "I'm really looking forward to collaborating with the community to see if we can come up with something that's good for everybody in the long term."

Meet and greet

A public meeting on the 440-acre Woods Bay parcel is Thursday, June 12, from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Bethany Lutheran Church, located at 8559 Highway 35 in Bigfork.

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