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Groups look to secure funds for 800-acre C-Falls conservation project

by KIANNA GARDNER
Daily Inter Lake | August 23, 2020 1:00 AM

For more than a decade, conservation and environmental organizations have been pining after 800 acres of prime wilderness real estate located just east of Columbia Falls, at the mouth of Bad Rock Canyon. And the coveted property, currently owned by the Columbia Falls Aluminum Co., is finally up for grabs.

Conservationists describe it as a “once in a lifetime opportunity,” and it’s one that has been extended to the Flathead Land Trust and partners before anyone else. The nonprofit has watchdogged over the property and this possible purchase, for years now and is now working closely with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks to acquire the land for a project known as the Bad Rock Canyon Conservation Project.

“This area is such a vital piece of the conservation puzzle for the Flathead River and watershed and really this entire area,” said Paul Travis, executive director of the Flathead Land Trust. “The project will safeguard this area for wildlife and is a great opportunity for Columbia Falls to have a public recreation area nearby.”

On a kayak trip down the Flathead River last week, Travis and several other stakeholders were able to peruse a portion of the sprawling land that sits south of the Flathead River and encompasses much of the forest and wetlands between the river bank and U.S. 2 in Columbia Falls. The acreage, a portion of which backs up against other public lands to the east, is critical for maintaining water quality in the Flathead Basin and for the wildlife that uses it as a point of connectivity and for other habitable means.

“This is a refuge for wildlife and is critically important for healthy river function,” said Laura Katzman, land protection specialist for the Flathead Land Trust. “We have an obligation to protect this.”

Representatives from the Flathead Land Trust, Flathead Lakers, Montana’s Outdoor Legacy Foundation, Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks and Flathead Wildlife were all present for the two-hour tour on Wednesday. These partners and others, Katzman told the group, are going to be vital in making sure the Bad Rock project comes to fruition.

The prized river-front parcel comes with a $7 million price tag. And the owner of the aluminum plant generously gave the Flathead Land Trust, FWP and other partners until December 2021 to acquire the money.

About $4 million of that has already been secured through a major grant from the U.S. Forest Service’s Forest Legacy Program, which is funded by the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which became permanently funded after the recent passage of the Great American Outdoors Act, a sprawling piece of bi-partisan legislation that aims to support conservation projects, outdoor recreation and the maintenance of national parks and other public lands. Senators Steve Daines and Jon Tester of Montana were both major advocates for the bill.

With the act passed, dozens of grant applications for conservation projects have filtered in for consideration in recent months, including one for the Bad Rock Conservation Project. Out of 46 projects nationwide that were submitted to the Forest Legacy Program, the Bad Rock project was ranked fifth on the funding priorities list.

“Having a ranking of number five nationally for an 800-acre property is kind of unheard of when you’re up against projects that have thousands of acres. It’s a testament to how special these lands are,” Travis said. “People really recognized how important this all is for wildlife and for water quality.”

The remaining $3 million will be partially covered by other federal and state grants, but FWP and the Land Trust need to come up with an additional $500,000 in non-federal match dollars.

“This is a lot of money to come up with in a short amount of time, there is no doubt about that,” Travis said. “But we know the kind of generous partners we have in this valley and we are confident we’ll be able to make it happen.”

TRAVIS, KATZMAN and others are confident the public and other organizations will give to the project.

Constanza von der Pahlen with the Flathead Lakers said during the tour that their organization, which primarily aims to protect and preserve Flathead Lake and the Flathead watershed, said the nonprofit is ready to get to work fundraising.

“We have a lot of amazing donors in this valley and we know they’ll recognize how important this section of the river is to the entire watershed,” von der Pahlen said.

The Bad Rock project borders 1.6 miles of the Flathead River and contains 700 acres of riparian forest, 80 acres of wetlands and a mile of a warm spring creek. It’s downstream of Bad Rock Canyon, a geographic pinch point where the river flows through a narrow canyon between the Swan and Whitefish mountain ranges.

Alan Wood with Montana FWP Region 1, who tagged along on the kayak trip, told stakeholders the land is also is home to nearly 200 species of birds and is frequented by bears, elk and other land-roaming wildlife that enjoy being near the river and among the young and mature cottonwoods that stretch throughout the property. The project would secure habitat protection for more than 40 species of “special concern.”

“This is basically undisturbed habitat,” Wood said. “Anything moving across the landscape from the east to the west is going to come through this property. There are plenty of studies that show how vital it is to protect the lands animals use for connectivity.”

Aside from the area’s obvious natural wealth, Travis said the public recreation opportunities are endless. A portion of the property is located directly across the river from River’s Edge Park in Columbia Falls and would provide additional public space for the city, its residents and the millions of tourists that pass through on their way to Glacier National Park.

“I am beyond excited to see this amazing piece of the valley preserved for the enjoyment and use by the Columbia Falls community and all Flathead Valley residents,” Columbia Falls City Council member Darin Fisher told the Hungry Horse News.

Travis said having Columbia Falls within eye and earshot of much of the property should also serve as a reminder of what could happen, should the groups not be able to secure the funds in time for the project.

“This is a developer’s dream,” Travis acknowledged. “The owners of CFAC have generously given us time to come up with the money. We don’t want to see this turned into subdivisions.”

Reporter Kianna Gardner can be reached at 758-4407 or kgardner@dailyinterlake.com

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Constanza von der Pehlan with the Flathead Lakers stands amid a cottonwood forest on lands that encompass the Bad Rock Canyon Conservation Project area near Columbia Falls. (Kianna Gardner/Daily Inter Lake)

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Conservation and environmental stakeholders take a river tour of the Bad Rock Canyon Conservation Project lands. (Kianna Gardner/Daily Inter Lake)

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The Bad Rock Canyon Conservation Project area consists of 800 acres east of Columbia Falls. (Photo provided)

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Paul Traivs, executive director of the Flathead Land Trust. The non-profit is spearheading efforts to purchase 800-acres west of Columbia Falls for a major conservation project at the mouth of the Bad Rock Canyon. (Kianna Gardner/Daily Inter Lake)