Montana trades public campsite to billionaire landowner
Montanans historically enjoyed the privilege of paddling our scenic rivers, camping in farm fields or groves of trees along the way. However, the rise of No Trespassing signs has largely ended this time-honored tradition, forcing paddlers to camp on gravel bars or seek scraps of public land to pitch a tent and stretch their legs. Public lands are especially scarce along the Jefferson River segment of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail, yet the state of Montana traded away a public campsite without a replacement, greatly exacerbating public access issues.
The 80-acre parcel of state land just below the confluence of the Beaverhead and Big Hole rivers was known as Beaver Chew campsite on the Jefferson River Canoe Trail. In early August 1805, Meriwether Lewis left a note for William Clark at the confluence of the Big Hole and Beaverhead rivers, but a beaver cut it down, so Clark led the canoes up the wrong fork, leading to a near fatal accident for Joseph Whitehouse, as Lewis noted in his journal, “The canoe had rubed him and pressed him to the bottom as she passed over him and had the water been 2 inches shallower must inevitably have crushed him to death. Our parched meal, corn, Indian preasents, and a great part of our most valuable stores were wet and much damaged on this ocasion.” The expedition backtracked and camped at the confluence to dry their gear.
Fast-forward two hundred years, and the lands that Lewis and Clark freely roamed are now largely off-limits. The state land at Beaver Chew offered the public a unique opportunity to explore the river and camp much as Lewis and Clark did. Now river users are expected to paddle seven miles upstream to the newly acquired land on the Big Hole, or an additional twenty-five miles downstream to the next public campsite on the Jefferson River Canoe Trail.
The Montana Land Board agreed to trade Beaver Chew to Swift River Investments (SRI), an out-of-state limited liability company owned by three brothers, Benjamin, David, and billionaire Hamilton “Tony” James, in exchange for a slightly larger 111-acre parcel upstream on the Big Hole River. Already owning 38,000 acres, the James brothers sought to remove the public from the only public land on the upper Jefferson without offering a viable replacement.
I’ve had past experiences with state policy makers, so I know how these things go. Key players get together and make a decision, then put it out for public comment. Then the state ignores public input and passes their original decision.
I learned that as a young man when I put down roots in the small town of Pony, Montana and started building my home. A mining company proposed building a cyanide vat leaching facility for processing gold ore on the hill above town. The proposal included a plan to store leftover mining waste for eternity in a rubber-lined pond or impoundment. Members of the community protested that it was a really bad idea to use cyanide or store toxic waste immediately upstream from every spring and well in town. But the state Water Quality Bureau endorsed the mining company’s proposal and approved the plan.
The impoundment leaked cyanide into the groundwater the first time it was used. The company went bankrupt for unrelated reasons, and the state of Montana spent more than $400,000 to clean up spilled cyanide. After a great deal of complaining by the people of Pony, the state eventually provided another $290,000 to contour and reseed the mill site. The main building at the mill site was never torn down. Thirty years after the saga began, we are still plagued by fiberglass insulation that blows out of the dilapidated old building, sometimes in big chunks that litter the hillside, sometimes small bits that land all over town, and often as microscopic shards that can be seen floating through the air we breathe. Not surprisingly, I don’t have a very high opinion of state government.
The state’s decision to trade away Beaver Chew followed similar form. Prior to soliciting public input, Swift River Investments negotiated the deal with the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) and Skyline Sportsmen, a hunting group out of Butte. The sportsmen’s group had little interest in Beaver Chew or the new land on the Big Hole. Instead, they supported the package because it was bundled with an upland trade that would increase public access in the Highland Mountains. Overall, the trade package would have been a reasonable deal if it didn’t eliminate the only public land on the upper Jefferson and solidify the landowner’s already extensive wall of No Trespassing signs.
The land exchange was largely a done deal before it went public. Members of the Canoe Trail were naturally opposed to the deal, as were other river users and Lewis and Clark supporters. Yet, at no point did Swift River Investments, DNRC, or Skyline Sportsmen consider reconfiguring the land exchange to address public concerns. They were committed to keeping the original trade package intact. It was never really a question of whether or not to pass the land exchange, but how to appease, settle with, or run over the opposition. In exchange for letting go of the 80-acre parcel of land, the sportsmen’s group offered to gift the Canoe Trail a rock with a plaque on it commemorating Lewis and Clark. We politely declined.
Swift River Investments was asked to mitigate the impact of taking away land along the Jefferson, so they offered a 4-acre campsite to replace Beaver Chew. Gifting a campsite to the Canoe Trail sounded very generous on paper, and the landowner solicited support for the deal from individuals, organizations, and government entities. However, the site was inhospitable, mostly rock and cactus, and the public wouldn’t have used it. Ditto for other variations offered by the billionaire. What is the point of having a campsite nobody will use?
Rather than seeking a mutually agreeable solution, Swift River Investments independently crafted proposals that sounded as if they were bending over backwards to address public concerns. SRI didn’t discuss, negotiate, or even inform us about these proposals ahead of time. Instead, they went straight to DNRC and had the proposals published as official scoping notices to solicit public comment. The offers seemed generous on paper, and SRI used these mitigation proposals to solicit public support for the land exchange, even winning the support of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail, a branch of the National Park Service.
Canoe Trail members would have gladly signed onto any proposal that included a functional campsite to replace Beaver Chew, but none was offered and the landowner seemed determine to make sure we would end up with a campsite the public wouldn’t use, or none at all.
Members of the Canoe Trail counter-offered several alternatives. We proposed retaining a recreation easement for camping at Beaver Chew, but the billionaire rejected the idea because it didn’t move the public away from the ranch. We proposed expanding their proposal for 4 acres of unappealing rock and cactus to 21 acres to access nearby federal lands, but the landowner didn’t want the public to access public lands behind the ranch. We suggested purchasing a twenty-acre tract farther downstream, which would have cost the landowner one-and-a-half day’s income, but that was apparently too expensive. We also proposed a recreation easement right at the confluence, which would have moved the public across the river from the main body of the ranch. That offer was also declined, for no obvious reason other than that the public would have actually used it.
A core problem with the land exchange was that it included two separate trades improperly bundled into one package. Supporters of the upland trade had little interest in the river parcels. Opponents of the river trade had little interest in the upland parcels. Public comments consistently ran for one trade or against the other. By itself, the upland trade would have been widely supported, yet the landowner, state, and sportsmen’s group held the original deal together and chose to run us over.
Through two years of contentious public debate we were told that there were “hundreds” of supporters behind the land exchange. However, a final tally of public comment revealed that “hundreds” consisted of about twenty people, several of which were the same person signing on behalf of different organizations. Overall, there was more opposition than support for the land exchange, yet public opinion didn’t matter. The land exchange would move forward regardless of public opinion.
The final package that went before the Montana Land Board was a bait-and-switch land deal. There was no campsite in the package, yet Swift River Investments and DNRC retained endorsements from parties who believed there was. The National Park Service ultimately retracted its support and opposed the land exchange. The Land Board, consisting of the five highest elected officials in the state, approved the deal anyway.
By dismantling the upper end of the Jefferson River Canoe Trail, the state delivered a blow to the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail and a dream shared by many to provide designated campsites along the Lewis and Clark route from here to St. Louis.
R.I.P. Beaver Chew. The loss of this public property will become a larger issue in the coming decades as a growing population increases demand for public campsites along the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail. For paddlers following the Trail, there is an especially large gap between the last campsite on the Beaverhead River and the next campsite downstream on the Jefferson.
It is time to move beyond piecemeal management of public lands to take a more holistic view of the LCNHT. We have the equivalent of a long, skinny national park running through our backyards. Let’s protect what we have left for future generations.
Thomas J. Elpel lives in Pony, Montana. He is the author of numerous books on wilderness survival, nature, and sustainable living. He is the founder/director of Green University® LLC and Outdoor Wilderness Living School (OWLS) and an original founding member of the Jefferson River Canoe Trail. An abridged version of this essay was published as a guest editorial the Helena Independent Record.
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