Agreement Could Protect 480 Acres (MT)

BIGFORK, MONTANA, 1/9/03:PacifiCorp, a Portland, Oregon based utility company, and the Trust for Public Land (TPL) have recently signed an agreement that gives TPL a first right of refusal and subsequent option to purchase approximately 480 acres of PacifiCorp’s land once the property is available for sale. The land is located along a stretch of the Swan River Corridor in Bigfork, Montana, locally known as “the Wild Mile.”

The Swan River Corridor is located in northwestern Montana, approximately 50 miles southwest of Glacier National Park, in a region known for its remarkable mountain landscapes. The Corridor is a highly scenic, natural gorge carved across the backbone of the Mission Mountain Range, located in the town of Bigfork just above the point where the Swan River empties into Flathead Lake. The Corridor largely consists of an untouched coniferous forest which, when combined with the riparian area along the river, provides habitat for black bear, whitetail deer, river otters, bald eagles, osprey, pileated woodpeckers, trout, and a wide variety of other wildlife species. The Corridor also serves as a vital natural link between Bigfork and its neighboring communities, and is home to the Swan River nature trail, Sliter Park, and the Bigfork Whitewater Festival, an international kayaking competition, from which the local name – “the Wild Mile” – is derived.

Bob Keenan, President of the Montana State Senate and a resident of Bigfork, noted, “Protection of the Swan River Corridor has been a priority goal for the Bigfork Community for several years and, over time, the effort has generated a tremendous amount of local, state and national support. The signing of this agreement between PacifiCorp and TPL is the first crucial step toward achieving this worthy goal.”

To date, PacifiCorp has generously allowed the public access to the area. As part of the pending process of obtaining re-licensing for their hydro-electric plant through the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), PacifiCorp recently signed a settlement agreement with the Bigfork Development Company that provides for a lease for the nature trail and maintenance of the trail upon issuance of the new license from FERC, and a lease to manage Sliter Park as a community park. However, the trail lease expires upon termination of the new FERC license and would not necessarily be renewed if the property were sold to a private buyer, particularly for development purposes; and the Sliter Park lease could be terminated upon sale of the property. When PacifiCorp began to actively market the property in 1999, this suddenly became a very real possibility.

Recognizing the threat that development of this property would pose to the Corridor and the community, a group of concerned local citizens, business leaders, and representatives of The Nature Conservancy, the Montana Land Reliance, the American Whitewater Association, the Flathead Lakers, and the Bigfork Area Chamber of Commerce formed the Swan River Corridor Committee in 1998, under the umbrella of the Bigfork Development Company (BDC), a local, non-profit organization.

Jim Slack, President of the BDC, explained, “The primary mission of the Swan River Corridor Committee is to acquire the 480 acres owned by PacifiCorp, preserve its outstanding conservation values and maintain public access to the Corridor forever.”

For the last three years, at the request of the BDC and PacifiCorp, TPL has worked through the Swan River Corridor Committee to negotiate a flexible agreement with PacifiCorp that would enable the eventual purchase of the property by TPL on behalf of the community. The agreement that was signed last month provides TPL with a first right of refusal over a period of nine years to acquire the property under specific terms. At the time the property is actually made available for sale by PacifiCorp, TPL will have the opportunity to exercise its option, which will allow it to purchase the property in phases over a three-year period. Should TPL elect not to exercise its option for any reason, the agreement is assignable to the BDC.

“The fact that the community allowed us to negotiate on their behalf was a tremendous demonstration of their faith in our ability to get this done,” stated Scott Wilber, project manager for TPL. “Similarly, PacifiCorp’s willingness to not treat this as a typical commercial real estate transaction, by giving us a first right of refusal and a reasonable timeframe within which to complete the purchase of the property, is a demonstration of their commitment to help make this a reality for the community.”

Once the property is purchased, TPL will hold it only as long as necessary until sufficient public and private funds can be secured to enable conveyance of the property to a public entity. TPL anticipates pursuing funding through the Land and Water Conservation fund to ultimately enable transferring the property to the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks, who would manage it for public use and enjoyment, as well as for its wildlife values.

Bigfork, Montana has been recognized as one of the “50 Great Towns of the West” and as one of the “100 Best Small Art Towns” in the National Geographic Guide to Small Town Escapes. In addition, a few years ago, the Swan River Corridor was identified by Scenic America as one of the country’s Last Chance Landscapes. According to Andrea Goff, Executive Director of the Bigfork Area Chamber of Commerce, “Bigfork’s natural beauty and open spaces are vital to our quality of life and the Swan River Corridor is intimately linked to the cultural and economic hub of our village.”

The Trust for Public Land, established in 1972, is a national nonprofit conservation organization that conserves land for people to improve the quality of life in our communities and to protect our natural and historic resources for future generations. Over the past 30 years, TPL has protected 1.5 million acres of land nationwide with a value of more than $2 billion. TPL projects in Montana include Garnet Ghost Town, Lindbergh Lake, the Swan River Valley, the Thompson and Fisher valleys, waterfowl habitat at the Bladsdel National Wildlife Refuge, and national forest lands near Yellowstone National Park. TPL has local offices in Helena and Bozeman, Montana.