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Land Board to consider easement for North Fork Road project

by CHAD SOKOL
Daily Inter Lake | December 5, 2020 12:00 AM

Montana's Land Board is expected to decide whether to grant Flathead County an easement for a 1-mile stretch of the North Fork Road just south of the Canada border – the missing piece in a $2 million project aimed at rehabilitating nearly 21 miles of the gravel road that serves as a back door to Glacier National Park.

The county and the U.S. Forest Service have easements for other stretches of the North Fork Road that cross trust land owned by the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. But that segment a mile south of the border mysteriously lacks an easement – a problem that Dave Prunty, the county's public works director, discovered last summer while sifting through decades-old road files.

In an interview Friday, Prunty said those files indicate the road took its current shape in the 1940s, and easements were granted when the county took control of it in the late '70s. The road stretches roughly 50 miles from Columbia Falls to Polebridge to the Canada border, providing access to about 300 residents and the western entrance to Glacier.

"We thought there was easement on everything, because everything that we had seen had an easement. Everything was done right, correctly," Prunty said. "For whatever reason, this one section didn't have an easement."

In 2016, the county partnered with the Flathead National Forest, the U.S. Border Patrol and Glacier National Park to apply for funding from the Federal Lands Access Program to resurface, reinforce and raise the grade of various sections of the road. The Federal Highway Administration is managing the project and providing the funding, except for a 13.42% match from the agencies that applied for it.

The Highway Administration is scheduled to begin work on that section near the border in July and finish by October, but it won't do so without an easement providing legal access. So, the county has requested an easement from the DNRC; it would be 60 feet wide and cover about 7.8 acres, and Prunty said agency staff have estimated it will cost the county $35,000 to $37,000.

"Now the ball is in DNRC's court," he said. "They will prepare documents on their side that will get us on the state Land Board's agenda."

The Land Board consists of Montana's five top elected officials – the governor, the attorney general, the secretary of state, the commissioner of securities and insurance and the superintendent of public instruction. Prunty said the DNRC is working to get the easement application on the board's Jan. 19 agenda, which would be after three new Republican officeholders are seated on the board.

Prunty said he's confident the board will approve the easement and keep the North Fork Road construction on schedule. But the unexpected situation has caused some frustration among county leaders who would prefer to get the easement for a discount.

Before 1999, the DNRC sold easements to counties and municipalities for a fraction of market value, but a state Supreme Court decision that year prohibited such discounts in order to maximize revenue from trust lands, which benefit Montana's K-12 schools and public universities. Flathead County has been slower than others in clearing up right-of-way questions and purchasing easements under a process established by the Legislature.

During a meeting on Tuesday, Prunty told the Flathead County commissioners that DNRC staff in Kalispell have estimated the price of the North Fork Road easement in the $35,000 range, but appraisers from another part of the agency will set the final price.

"They're the ones that determine the value," Prunty said.

Commissioner Phil Mitchell replied, facetiously: "It's really wonderful they get to set their own values. I wish I had a business that could do that."

Reporter Chad Sokol can be reached at 758-4434 or csokol@dailyinterlake.com