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SUPERIOR - Lots of folks like the idea of 41,000 acres of Fish Creek coming under state management, but they're not so thrilled about a big state park there.

A show of hands at a public hearing Tuesday night found most of the 65 attendees favoring a Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks plan to buy most of the wild drainage south of Alberton Gorge. But many hands retracted when asked if they also supported a 7,650-acre park with campgrounds, toilets and other public facilities.

FWP officials want to buy the land from the Nature Conservancy, which in turn bought it from Plum Creek Timber Co. as part of the Montana Legacy Project. The deal could close as early as the end of March.

The purchase would cost about $14 million, coming from a combination of state and federal funds. FWP regional director Mack Long said the park portion is crucial because money is coming from budgets for both state parks and wildlife.

Although it's been extensively logged and suffered recent forest fires, the land has considerable wildlife and recreation potential. Its streams are strongholds for genetically pure westslope cutthroat trout and one of the few breeding areas for migratory bull trout. It also forms an animal travel link between the Great Burn and Selway-Bitterroot wilderness areas in the west and those of the Mission Mountains and Bob Marshall to the east.

"I'm not too happy about that park being built in that particular place," said Fish Creek rancher Ollie St. Clair, who added he did support FWP buying the land. "I think there's a better place for this park. The main users are in Alberton Gorge. I think we should build the park out on the freeway, where there's control."

Other speakers like Al Meeks of Superior fully supported the purchase and the park plan. Meeks said he'd been enjoying Fish Creek since 1963 and was concerned about how many areas were getting privatized and closed to public use. He added that maintaining the area was a manageable task that shouldn't block the project.

Other concerns included who would take care of the roads through the drainage and what kind of vehicle use would be allowed. Roger Tulberg of the Montana Trail Riders Association said there was little detail in a draft environmental assessment explaining what kinds of off-highway vehicle access would be permitted.

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The drainage has about 521 miles of road, although only 115 miles are open year-round. Long said a three-year planning process would review those roads for improvement, transformation into trails and possible closure or expansion.

Although Tuesday was the official public comment date for the Superior area, FWP will take e-mail, letter and phone comments on the environmental assessment through Feb. 19. Comments should be e-mailed to fishcreek@mt.gov, or mailed to Fish Creek Project, Montana FWP, Region 2 Headquarters, 3201 Spurgin Road, Missoula, MT 59804.

The complete Fish Creek environmental assessment can be found on the Web at fwp.mt.gov.

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

 

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