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Access issues at old Harpers Bridge - Owner wants to sell property due to trash, vandalism
Michael Pirker of Missoula wades in the cool water of the Clark Fork River at the Deep Creek Fishing Access on Monday afternoon. The Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks is seeking public comment on a proposal to buy land on both sides of the Clark Fork River at the old Harpers Bridge to provide better access for recreationists. Photo by MICHAEL GALLACHER/Missoulian

Rod and Julie Leister were fed up.

After years of people littering and tearing down fences on their property along the Clark Fork River by the old Harpers Bridge, the Leisters decided to either close the site to public access or allow the state to take it over.

They chose the latter option, so Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks is seeking public comment on a land acquisition proposal that would give anglers, floaters and other recreationists better access, while putting the area under stricter state management.

"I want the public to use it - to swim and fish and raft - but I want them to clean up their mess and be responsible," said Rod Leister, whose family has grown hay and run cattle on the farm since 1952. "People were ruining it, so we figured the time had come to just shut it down or sell it to somebody to manage it."

The proposal, which is open to public comment, would improve public recreation and allow the FWP to manage noxious weeds, bank erosion, and traffic hazards and congestion.

It also would keep 12 waterfront acres from being sold to developers as residential lots, which some neighboring landowners have done because of littering, vandalism and other problems, Leister said. Other neighbors have kept their riverfront land but closed off public access, he said.

"I'm not the only rancher with the same problem," Leister said. "People have no respect for other people's property. It's been a headache for me, so if this (land acquisition proposal) doesn't go through, I'll just fence off the whole area."

Lee Bastian, FWP regional park manager, praised the Leisters for trying to retain public access to the site, which draws big crowds during the summer.

"They thought it was time for a public agency to have the responsibility," Bastian said. "What's neat about it is they value the importance of public access to our rivers, so they thought a good solution was to contact us."

Sunny skies on Monday afternoon drew a handful of young people to the site, where they sunbathed and swam in the river. They said they understood the Leisters' frustration with litterbugs and vandals, but they would be disappointed if the area is closed to the public.

"It'd be a real bummer," said Amanda Marquart.

"I float and fish here all the time, so shutting it down wouldn't be good," Carson Blake said.

The proposal involves two properties, which are about eight miles northwest of Missoula and are located across the river from each other.

The first tract covers nearly 4 acres along the west side of the Clark Fork next to the Deep Creek Fishing Access Site.

There is no parking area along Big Flat Road for accessing the property, but the public would be able to park at the fishing access site and walk along the shoreline to use the property for bank fishing.

The Leisters want to donate the property to FWP because it provides little benefit to their farming operation.

The second tract covers more than 8 acres across the river next to the remaining eastern abutment of the old Harpers Bridge, which is off Mullan Road-Highway 263 on Harpers Bridge Road.

FWP proposes to purchase the parcel for $63,225, which is the appraised value.

The site has grown in popularity, causing increased parking along the county road at the old Harpers Bridge cul-de-sac and traffic hazards and congestion for nearby residents.

The land acquisition would allow the possibility of FWP developing a formal fishing access site with off-street parking.

Kona Bridge Fishing Access Site, which is four miles upstream, and Petty Creek Fishing Access Site, which is 22 miles downstream, are the closest existing public access sites for launching boats.

According to the FWP's draft environmental assessment, the project would not cause environmental degradations and no environmental impact statement is needed.

More information is available at fwp.mt.gov, 542-5500 or shrose@mt.gov. Public comments must be received by 5 p.m. July 21. Comments should be sent to rzarling@mt.gov or Old Harpers Bridge Acquisitions, FWP, 3201 Spurgin Road, Missoula, MT 59804.

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