Gallatin Co. Landmark To Be Protected (MT)

BOZEMAN, MT, 10/20/04 – The Trust for Public Land (TPL), in partnership with the Gallatin Valley Land Trust (GVLT) and the Gallatin County Open Lands Board (OLB), announced today that is has taken the first major step in completing a 2,040-acre land conservation project outside of Bozeman. Yesterday, the Gallatin County Commission agreed to contribute $800,000 from the county’s Open Space Grant Program to help fund the project, which has a preliminary estimated value of almost $4.5 million.

The land to be conserved is owned by local residents Hugo and Shirley Schmidt and is located just five miles east of downtown Bozeman, straddling Interstate 90 between the Bear Canyon and Trail Creek exits. The property is highly visible to passing traffic, and, given its prominent location at the eastern end of the Gallatin Valley, can be seen from as far away as Belgrade and Four Corners. It also provides critical habitat for wildlife traveling between the Gallatin Mountains to the south and the Bridger/Bangtail Mountains to the north where large expanses of public land provide a refuge and haven for bears, elk, moose, mountain lion and other wide-ranging species.

The proposed project has two components. Approximately 800 acres, mostly on the south side of Interstate 90, will be purchased by TPL in fee and then conveyed either to the United States for inclusion in the Gallatin National Forest or to another government entity. The balance of the property – some 1,240 acres – will be protected by a conservation easement, which TPL plans on buying and conveying to Gallatin County. The easement would ultimately be assigned to GVLT for long-term monitoring and stewardship. TPL will be purchasing the conservation easement and fee property in two, separate transactions, although both must occur at the same time. TPL will not have the right to purchase either interest by itself.

A key feature of the proposed project is the new public access that it will afford to local residents. Included in the 800 acres, which TPL will be acquiring in fee, is a popular rock climbing area on the north side of Interstate 90. TPL’s purchase will guarantee that this area is made permanently accessible to the public. It will also offer an opportunity to solve a major trespass issue for the Montana Department of Transportation (MDT). Rock climbers currently gain access to the climbing area by parking illegally on the north side of the interstate within the right-of-way belonging to the Federal Highway Administration. MDT is eager to see this trespass issue solved, particularly in light of the inherent danger involved with pulling on and off the interstate at this location. TPL and GVLT will be working with MDT, community leaders and other public agencies to figure out a way to provide permanent and legal access to the climbing area from the Trail Creek interchange, which is located immediately to the east. One possible solution includes the construction of a dedicated road or trail, which would parallel the interstate and would connect to the old Highway 10 right-of-way.

Additional public access will be provided on the south side of Interstate 90. An intervening property owner recently agreed to grant a trail easement, which would allow a new public trail to be built, starting at the Trail Creek Road and leading up to the property, which will be acquired by TPL. The easement would be restricted to non-motorized uses and would provide permanent public access to Chestnut Mountain and National Forest System lands beyond. The easement is being held in escrow and will only be put into effect when the public acquisition of the fee property is complete.

Commissioner Bill Murdock said that he was “delighted to see this unique project” and that he was particularly pleased with the important public access and recreational values that it is seeking to protect. As he put it, “It is refreshing to see a project that not only conserves important scenery and wildlife habitat but also provides significant public access benefits in the process”.

Kurt Alt, a wildlife manager for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, praised the project, indicating that it would be good for wildlife and that it is “one of the most unique and important acquisitions for wildlife and wildlife habitat ever proposed in the Gallatin Valley. A successful completion of the project would go a long way to protect a critical wildlife corridor that is being highly threatened by subdivision and development.”

Michael Harris, Gallatin County Open Lands Coordinator, praised the work of TPL, GVLT and the Schmidt family. As he put it, “this is exactly the type of proactive and voluntary-based land conservation project that the Open Lands Program is looking for. Not only are we protecting a local landmark with critical wildlife corridor values, but we’re also providing significant public access – something that we continually strive to do whenever we invest the county’s money”. Mr. Harris reports to the Open Lands Board – a citizen’s advisory committee, which reviews and approves all expenditures from the $10 million Open Space Bond fund that was approved by local voters in 2000.

TPL’s local project manager, Alex Diekmann, echoed Mr. Harris’ comments, indicating that he was proud to sponsor a project with so many public access values. “By themselves, the wildlife and scenic values of the Schmidt property are more than worthy of protection. But what really sets this project apart is the public’s ability to step foot on some of the land that it is helping to protect. We will continue to work hard to gain more public access wherever possible.”

Debbie Deagen, GVLT’s Executive Director noted what a pleasure it was to work with the Schmidt family for the past six years to make their conservation dream a reality. Additionally, Deagen stated “This land is such a critical piece of our wildlife habitat and recreation “puzzle” in the Bozeman Pass area. The wildlife connectivity this project provides is important internationally.”

The Trust for Public Land, a national nonprofit organization, conserves land for people to improve the quality of life in communities and to protect our natural and historic resources for future generations. Since 1972, TPL has protected over 1.9 million acres nationwide with a value of more than $3.5 billion. Projects in Montana include protection of Garnet Ghost Town, Lindbergh Lake, the Swan River Valley, Thompson and Fisher River Valleys, waterfowl habitat at the Blasdel National Wildlife Refuge and National Forest lands north of Yellowstone National Park.

GVLT is a non-profit membership organization dedicated to the conservation of open space, agricultural land, wildlife habitat and the creation of public trails in southwestern Montana. Since 1990, GVLT has partnered with 43 families, family trusts and corporations to protect over 10,000 acres in Gallatin, Park, Madison and Jefferson counties through its conservation easement program. These protected areas include working farms and ranches, scenic views, critical wildlife habitat and urban open space. GVLT also has an active community trails program and is working with volunteers and local organizations to build the twenty-four mile “Main Street to the Mountains” trail system, which will one day connect downtown Bozeman with the Bridger Mountains to the north and the Hyalite Mountains to the south.