Category Archives: Jefferson River

R.I.P. Beaver Chew

Beaver Chew campsite

Beaver Chew was the only public land available for camping on the upper Jefferson River. The next available campsite is twenty-five miles downstream.

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.

Map sample.

Map detail shows proximity of Beaver Chew campsite to the actual Lewis and Clark campsite near the original confluence of the Big Hole and Beaverhead rivers.

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.

hamilton_tony_james

The principal owner of Swift River Investments (SRI) is New York billionaire Hamilton “Tony” James.

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.

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The landowner posted a No Trespassing sign at the edge of the state land months before the state approved the deal.

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.

4-acre_campsite

Swift River Investments offered to gift the Canoe Trail a four-acre campsite on the downstream end of their ranch. It was a generous offer, except that it was a poor campsite, and few people would choose to stay there.

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.

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A suggestion to purchase a replacement campsite downstream from Beaver Chew was rejected by Tony James because it would have cost him one-and-a-half day’s income.

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.

Aerial view of Beaver Chew campsite.

R.I.P. Beaver Chew. The final package that went before the Montana Land Board was a bait-and-switch land deal without a replacement campsite.

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.

Elpel.info logo. 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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Filed under Conservation, Jefferson River, Politics, Public Access

The State Lands Shuffle

Mountain lake.

Montana is rich with public lands, but often without legal access.

Facilitating a more Holistic Public Dialogue

Montana is blessed with immense public lands, totaling approximately 37 percent of the state’s total area. However, more than 3,000 square miles of federal land and almost 1,900 square miles of state land are inaccessible, landlocked within or behind private parcels with no legal access. Public-private land exchanges could help clean up this mess, simplifying management for public agencies and private landowners while improving public access to public lands. The state of Montana could lead this effort, swapping parcels to increase access to both state and federal lands.

Unfortunately, the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) lacks basic guidelines to manage land-exchange proposals. The result is an exceptionally unholistic process that can degrade into a counterproductive and  contentious quagmire. Such was the case with the Swift River Investments (SRI) River Holdings land exchange proposal along the Jefferson River. It stands as a case study of how the public process could be improved. It is my hope that lessons learned from this experience will lead to a set of DNRC guidelines to facilitate future land-exchange proposals.

Overview

The Swift River Investments proposal was apparently initiated by SRI and negotiated with DNRC and Skyline Sportsmen, a Butte-based public access advocacy group based in Butte. These three parties negotiated a mutually beneficial package where SRI would obtain two parcels of state land totaling 608 acres in exchange for two parcels of private land totaling 861 acres with greater value and easier management for the state, while providing improved public access to federal lands in the nearby Highland Mountains.

Aerial view of Beaver Chew campsite.

Beaver Chew is a public floater’s camp on the Jefferson River Canoe Trail.

The upland portion of the agreement traded 528 acres for 750 acres, and the riparian portion traded an 80-acre parcel on the Jefferson River for a 111-acre parcel upstream on the Big Hole River. The proposal would have been a reasonable and fair deal, except that the 80-acre parcel on the Jefferson served as a <A HREF=”http://www.jeffersonriver.org/Canoe_Trail_Campsites.htm”>public campsite</A> known as Beaver Chew on the Jefferson River Canoe Trail segment of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail.

In August 1805, Meriwether Lewis left a note for William Clark on a tree at the confluence of the Big Hole and Beaverhead rivers, but then a beaver toppled the tree. Instead of ascending the Beaverhead, Clark led the men and canoes up the Big Hole River for nearly a mile with great difficulty, camping in the mud. They corrected the navigational error the next day, but had a near-fatal accident on their return downstream. Joseph Whitehouse was thrown overboard and nearly crushed by the weight of the dugout canoe as it passed over him in the river. The expedition backtracked to the confluence, camping there on August 6th, 1805 to dry their gear.

Map sample.

Map detail shows proximity of Beaver Chew campsite to the actual Lewis and Clark campsite near the original confluence of the Big Hole and Beaverhead rivers.

The state parcel, named Beaver Chew in recognition of this story, was situated near the confluence and served as a public campsite for floaters coming down either the Beaverhead or Big Hole rivers.

Administered by the National Park Service, the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail is the equivalent of having a long, skinny national park running through our backyards, albeit with no formal protection for the river or the land. The Jefferson River Canoe Trail Chapter of the national Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation, was formed to steward this segment of the Trail, to advocate for public lands along the Jefferson, and to enhance the Lewis and Clark experience with quality, designated campsites along the way. This project may one day connect with other water trails on the Missouri, forming a continuous chain of campsites from here to St. Louis, Missouri.

Trading Beaver Chew for land on the Big Hole was akin to trading away land in a national park for land outside the park. Beaver Chew was the only public land available for camping on the upper Jefferson. For floaters following the Lewis and Clark Trail down the Beaverhead, it is highly impractical to turn and paddle seven miles up the Big Hole to camp. The next available campsite on the Jefferson is 25 miles downstream.

Beaver Chew campsite

Beaver Chew was the only public land available for camping on the upper Jefferson. The next available campsite is twenty-five miles downstream.

The negotiating parties were unfortunately unaware of the Jefferson River Canoe Trail (JRCT) or that the state parcel served as a public campsite for floaters following the Lewis and Clark Trail. Had they known about the Canoe Trail, Beaver Chew would never have been included in the land-exchange proposal. However, by the time they negotiated the deal between themselves, the parties were reluctant to address the concerns of another user group. They want the Jefferson River Canoe Trail to bear the majority cost of the land exchange.

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Beaver Chew campsite was appraised at $400,000, yet the real-world replacement cost is considerably higher. Members of the Canoe Trail will have to raise $800,000 to $1.2 million to replace the public land.

The 80-acre parcel was appraised at $400,000, which is an enormous sum in itself. Yet, the real-world cost is considerably higher, since Jefferson River real estate typically sells for $10,000 to $15,000 per acre. If the land exchange went through, the Canoe Trail would have to raise $800,000 to $1.2 million to replace the lost public lands. Rather than working with our group to find an equitable solution, the other parties vilified the Canoe Trail and tried to intimidate and pressure the group with empty offers of “compromise.”

The experience, detailed as follows, shows how the public process broke down and provides insights for potential guidelines to facilitate better land-exchange proposals. These guidelines could form the basis for a land-exchange handbook that could be accessed by DNRC personnel from any office. DNRC would share the guidebook with all involved and interested parties, so that everyone understands how to move forward in a holistic and communicative manner.

1. Basic Research

DNRC should do background research on any parcel involved in any trade.

It would not have been difficult to identify the Jefferson River Canoe Trail as an affected party early in the process. Since 2004, the Canoe Trail has been featured in many local and national publications, including the Montana Standard, Bozeman Daily Chronicle, Belgrade News, Madisonian, Lewis and Clark Journal, Big Sky Journal, CanoerootsOutside Bozeman magazine, and The Trail Companion, published by the National Park Service. Type the words “Jefferson River” into an online search, and you will immediately discover the Jefferson River Canoe Trail.

River Right article from Big Sky Journal

The Jefferson River Canoe Trail has been featured in numerous newspaper and magazine articles dating back to 2004.

If this search had been done, then Beaver Chew would have been excluded from the land-exchange, and the remainder of the deal could have proceeded forward without controversy. Unfortunately, without a guidebook, DNRC personnel were left to make mistakes that are easily avoidable.

2. Public Input

DNRC needs to clarify the role of public input in the land-exchange process.

4-acre_campsite

Swift River Investments offered to gift the Canoe Trail a four-acre campsite on the downstream end of their ranch. It was a generous offer, except that it was a poor campsite, and few people would choose to stay there.

Early in the process we were told that our input mattered in the decision-making process, and SRI offered our group a 4-acre campsite on the downstream end of their ranch to replace the 80-acre site at Beaver Chew. We appreciated the gesture and toured the site, but found largely inhospitable rock and cactus. We picnicked briefly in some broken willows and cow pies, then scrambled for the canoes as soon as it was time to leave. Nobody wanted to stay. What good is a campsite if nobody wants to be there? We politely refused the offer.

Then came the shocker. Instead of working with us to find an acceptable alternative, SRI and DNRC-Dillon chose to advance the proposal to the Land Board, attempting to sell their “gift” to us as a reasonable deal. The “gift” made SRI look generous, at least on paper, and they tried to force us to take an undesirable campsite that the public wouldn’t use. It was a hostile move that fostered an atmosphere of extreme distrust.

3. Notify Affected Parties

DRNC should implement a policy of notifying all known parties affected by proposals under consideration by the Land Board.

When SRI and DNRC-Dillon advanced the land-exchange proposal to the State Land Board for the first time on December 21, 2015, members of the Jefferson River Canoe Trail were not invited. We did not receive any notification whatsoever about the hearing, even though our group was directly affected by SRI’s proposal to take away Beaver Chew and grant us an undesirable campsite. We were fortunate to catch wind of the public hearing in advance and were thus able to attend and defend Beaver Chew.

4. Disclose Potential Conflicts of Interest

DNRC and the Land Board need to adopt guidelines to publicly disclose any and all potential conflicts of interest. There should also be clear and consistent guidelines to identify when Land Board members should ethically recuse themselves from a vote.

hamilton_tony_james

The principal owner of Swift River Investments is New York billionaire Hamilton “Tony” James, who has deep political connections at the state and national level.

When Swift River Investments advanced the land exchange proposal to the Land Board over our objections, we began to wonder who was behind this push. Background research revealed that the principal owner of SRI is Hamilton “Tony” James, a billionaire with deep political connections at the state and national level, including connections to at least one member of the state Land Board. This revelation led to doubts about the public process. Does public input really matter? Was the land exchange decided before we ever heard about it?

These are valid questions that led to considerable paranoia and distrust in the public process. On the one hand, we would like to think that our public officials are above reproach and will objectively consider the proposal based on its merits. On the other hand, SRI and DNRC-Dillon advanced the proposal to the Land Board, didn’t inform us of the hearing, and tried to sell the proposal as a generous gift after we already turned it down.

There never was any public disclosure regarding the nature of the connections between Mr. James and members of the Land Board. How deep are these connections? Were there potential conflicts of interest? Should any Land Board members have recused themselves from voting on this particular land exchange proposal?

Lunch meeting.

Lunching together with members of Skyline Sportsmen. They claimed to be on our side and there to support us, but we later learned they helped draft the proposal that would trade away Beaver Chew.

5. Disclose the Involved Parties

DNRC should immediately supply any interested party a document that a) outlines the land-exchange proposal, b) reveals who is substantially involved in the process, and c) defines the nature of their role in the process.

For eight months we studied, debated, and attempted to negotiate with SRI to improve the land exchange proposal, but at no point did anyone mention that the Skyline Sportsmen’s group in Butte was a key player in negotiating the original proposal. The first time we met Skyline Sportsmen was immediately after our first hearing with the Land Board in Helena. Members of Skyline Sportsmen showed up after the hearing and claimed they were on our side. We went out to lunch together and had a great time. It took another week to learn that they were not on our side, and even more time to learn that they actually helped draft the agreement to take Beaver Chew away from the Canoe Trail.

6. Document the Purpose and Benefits of the Land Exchange

Map of proposed land trade.

Map of the proposed land exchange. Throughout the land exchange it has been excruciatingly difficult to obtain basic details about the proposal.

DNRC should maintain an ongoing public log of who, what, and why of the main points of the land exchange to any interested parties.

Throughout the land exchange proceedings, it was excruciatingly difficult to obtain basic information about the proposal. For example, who added Beaver Chew to the land exchange proposal and why? We heard many different, conflicting answers. What were the benefits of the land exchange for the landowner? For DNRC? For Skyline Sportsmen? It took more than a year to obtain sketchy details about who was involved and what they wanted out of the deal. DNRC ultimately published a Project Development timeline as part of the Environmental Assessment almost two years after we first learned of the land exchange proposal, and only after DNRC closed the official public comment period. This narrative could have easily been provided from the beginning to clarify core issues.

 

7. Consider Inequities Between the Parties

DNRC needs to establish guidelines calling for equitable compromise according to each party’s ability to contribute.

The SRI River Holdings land exchange proposal was a good deal for SRI, DNRC and Skyline Sportsmen, but only at the expense of the Jefferson River Canoe Trail and other river users. Our group would have to raise $800,000 to $1.2 million to purchase an equivalent property for public use on the upper Jefferson River.

Rather than the Canoe Trail alone paying for the land exchange, an equitable compromise would have entailed each party contributing one-fourth of the value in acres or dollars. However, the state has limited flexibility, and Skyline Sportsmen is a nonprofit group like the Canoe Trail, that could not be expected to chip in hundreds of thousands of dollars. Separating DNRC and Skyline from the deal leaves only SRI and the Canoe Trail to split the cost 50/50. Although our group would prefer to retain Beaver Chew as a public campsite, we were willing to accept a reasonable compromise, even considerably less than a 50/50 deal.

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We proposed that Swift River Investments purchase a 20-acre parcel to replace the 80-acre campsite at Beaver Chew. It would have cost the SRI’s owner, Tony James, 1 1/2 day’s income, but he wasn’t interested in compromise.

In January of 2016 we proposed that SRI could purchase a 20-acre property downstream for a public campsite, and in exchange, we could support the land exchange proposal. It wasn’t a particularly good deal for the Canoe Trail, giving up 80 acres for 20, but it would have minimally satisfied the issues surrounding the land swap. The property would have cost less than two days of the landowners’ income, but the offer was rejected, along with several other compromise solutions from our group. This was coming from a billionaire with 38,000 acres who insisted on pushing the public off the 80-acre campsite at Beaver Chew without providing a functional replacement on the Jefferson River.

SRI could have easily brought our group onboard with the proposal, but instead expected the Canoe Trail to bear the majority cost of the land swap. Rather than spend a few days his time to settle the deal, Mr. James chose to drag the process out for an additional year, consuming hundreds of hours from all parties involved in the process.

Given that the Land Board passed the deal, the Jefferson River Canoe Trail will now have to work for a decade or more to raise funds to replace public lands lost along the Jefferson.

 

mt_dnrc_logo

DNRC published various proposals offering substanceless offers of “compromise” to the Canoe Trail without discussing those proposals with our group ahead of time.

8. Include Affected Parties in the Process

DNRC needs to establish guidelines to include affected parties in drafting proposals before those proposals go public. 

DNRC-Dillon published multiple scoping documents regarding the land exchange proposal without consulting affected parties in advance. For example, on July 13, 2016, DNRC published a scoping notice and asked for public comment on a proposal that included numerous offers to the Canoe Trail without informing the group or soliciting our input in advance. These proposals sounded generous on paper, but they were hollow offers, including:

  • A Lewis and Clark interpretive sign at the confluence of the Big Hole and Beaverhead Rivers that we didn’t ask for and didn’t want, because the river is highly volatile there, and the sign would end up littering the river.
  • A $50,000 matching grant for future Canoe Trail projects, which sounds great, except that it is only about 5% of the replacement cost for the public lands being taken away at Beaver Chew.
  • A recreation easement for camping on a 4-acre portion of 80-acre parcel of state land, which seems reasonable, except that the site offered is largely uninviting and inaccessible. Plus SRI imposed tight restraints limiting access to three months of the year, and visitors would be required to call the ranch ahead of time to stay there. Moreover the recreation easement would be permanently revoked if people broke the rules or trespassed outside the 4-acre corral.

SRI and/or DNRC could have easily solicited our input in advance to develop an acceptable compromise, but chose instead to present the proposal as if they were granting the Canoe Trail a generous gift. The package was seemingly intended to mislead the public into believing that core issues were being addressed. How could DNRC publish something like this without consulting the affected parties?

9. Protect Public Access to Public Lands

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SRI River Holdings placed a “Private Property – No Trespassing” sign on the upstream end of Beaver Chew, chasing away floaters who came seeking the public campsite.

DNRC needs to prevent private landowners from posting public lands.

During the summer of 2016, several people reported that they were unable to locate Beaver Chew. SRI posted a “No Trespassing” sign on the edge of the state land, causing visitors to continue downstream, unable to find the campsite. Although SRI’s sign was on their land, the apparent purpose of the sign was to scare the public away from public land. SRI also mowed a patrol pathway along the edge of the state land, facilitating the illusion that they owned it. DNRC shouldn’t tolerate these deceptions. DNRC should immediately post the state land as public, or insist that the landowner remove or clarify their signs.

10. Disclose Conflicts of Interest among Supporters

DNRC needs to establish protocols for disclosing behind-the-scenes connections when facilitating a land exchange.

The land exchange proposal was supported by the George Grant Chapter of Trout Unlimited and other TU members, which sounds like an honest endorsement, at least on the surface. However, the land exchange proposal had no bearing on fisheries issues. The reason Trout Unlimited voiced an opinion on this issue was because the landowner, Tony James, is Vice Chairman and a big donor to Trout Unlimited’s Coldwater Conservation Fund. TU members were effectively paid to endorse the land exchange.

11. Prioritize Local Residents and Affected Users

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The land exchange proposal was negotiated between outside groups, not those of us who live near and recreate on the Jefferson River.

DNRC needs to establish guidelines to prioritize the concerns of those who are directly impacted by a land exchange proposal.

A key issue with the land exchange was that an out-of-state landowner negotiated the deal with parties in Beaverhead County (DNRC) and Silverbow County (Skyline Sportsmen) to manage and dispose of lands in Madison County without including Madison County residents or Jefferson River advocates who are most impacted by the exchange. The original parties invested time, energy, and momentum in developing a three-way pact, with which they sought to push over those of us who live here.  This was evident at the Nov. 1, 2016 public meeting in Twin Bridges, where land exchange proponents were principally from over the hill in Butte and wouldn’t be impacted by the loss of public land on the Jefferson River.

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There is widespread support for the Canoe Trail and keeping Beaver Chew or a reasonable alternative on the Jefferson River, yet DNRC is ignoring public opinion.

12. Acknowledge Public Opinion

DNRC needs to acknowledge public opinion in the land exchange process.

More people opposed the land exchange than supported it, according to a tally of all available public comment. Even those who favored the land exchange proposal widely agreed that Swift River Investments should have reached an acceptable settlement with the Canoe Trail. Why then did DNRC go out of its way to finalize the land exchange without settling core issues? Does public opinion matter in deciding the fate of public lands?

13. Develop Consistent Procedures

DNRC needs to develop consistent procedures for facilitating land exchange proposals. 

DNRC-Dillon published several versions of the SRI River Holdings land exchange proposal that included offers to the Canoe Trail, as noted earlier. However, in October 2016, DNRC stripped these settlement proposals from the official documents, declaring that those were side deals that were independent of the state process. Lacking an established set of guidelines to facilitate the land exchange process, DNRC changed the rules on the fly, inventing policies and procedures as they went along. The land exchange process doesn’t need to be this convoluted.

14. Publicly Disclose DNRC’s Position

If DNRC isn’t neutral to the proceedings, then that bias needs to be disclosed in all public documents and at all public meetings.

The state of Montana is presumably a neutral party in land exchange proceedings, intended to facilitate rather than advocate. In this case, however, DNRC was an active proponent of the trade. DNRC needs to publish guidelines clarifying its role in facilitating the public process. Is DNRC neutral? Or does DNRC have its own agenda and thus ignores public opinion?

rock_and_cactus_campsite

Jefferson River Canoe Trail members proposed expanding SRI’s original offer of a 4-acre campsite to 21 acres with a corner crossing easement to access BLM lands, much like other Canoe Trail campsites. DNRC didn’t mention this alternative or other reasonable proposals in the Environmental Assessment.

15. Follow MEPA Process for Public Review

DNRC needs to follow the MEPA process as laid out in the law.

Writing an Environmental Assessment is standard procedure for a land exchange proposal and virtually any other state or federal decision-making process. A typical Environmental Assessment includes a Preferred Alternative, a No-Action Alternative, and several other alternatives, listed as A, B, C, etc. There is a public comment period of thirty or more days after the EA is published before a final decision is made.

Members of the Jefferson River Canoe Trail offered several proposals and viable alternatives for the EA. Most of our suggestions were omitted from the EA, and none were evaluated as potential alternatives. Moreover, DNRC closed the public comment period prior to publishing the EA, contrary to Montana Environmental Policy Act (MEPA) Model Rules:

  1. PUBLIC REVIEW OF ENVIRONMENTAL ASSESSMENTS

    (3) The agency is responsible for providing additional opportunities for public review consistent with the seriousness and complexity of the environmental issues associated with a proposed action and the level of public interest. Methods of accomplishing public review include publishing a news release or legal notice to announce the availability of an EA, summarizing its content and soliciting public comment; holding public meetings or hearings; maintaining mailing lists of persons interested in a particular action or type of action and notifying them of the availability of EAs on such actions; and distributing copies of EAs for review and comment.

Although there was significant opposition to the land exchange proposal, DNRC arbitrarily opted to skip public review of the EA in the MEPA process.

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Public-private land exchanges can be a positive tool for consolidating public lands and enhancing public access. DNRC needs to publish a set of guidelines to ensure a more holistic process and public dialogue.

Conclusion

Public-private land exchanges can be a good tool for consolidating public lands, facilitating resource management, and enhancing public access. DNRC and the Land Board could greatly improve the public process by publishing a set of guidelines to ensure an orderly, fair, and holistic dialogue to bring all parties together towards common goals. I write this article as a formal request for the state of Montana to establish such guidelines.

In regards to the SRI River Holdings land exchange, Beaver Chew never would have been included in the proposal if DNRC-Dillon did the most basic research early in the process. Failing this fundamental duty, DNRC didn’t attempt to resolve the issues, but instead chose to preserve its alliance with SRI and Skyline Sportsmen against Jefferson River advocates. Those of us who care about and love the Jefferson River bent over backwards in the attempt to accommodate the trade and find a win-win solution to benefit all parties. Unfortunately, Swift River Investments was not willing to compromise or to search for common ground, and DNRC was less than helpful.

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 SRI and DNRC retained endorsements from parties who believed there was. The Land Board, consisting of the five highest elected officials in the state, approved the deal anyway. Our state government can do better than that. Let’s establish a set of guidelines to facilitate the public process and facilitate, rather than impede, future land exchanges.

Elpel.info logo.            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.

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Building a National Park

The Jefferson River is an essential segment of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail.

The Jefferson River is an essential segment of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail.

“Let’s make a national park, Dad.” my son Edwin used to tell me. He participated in junior ranger programs at many national parks. Creating our own park was apparently the next step in the process. Now, as president of the Jefferson River Canoe Trail, that is essentially the focus of my work.

In two dimensions at least, the Jefferson River is already a national park. Named by Lewis and Clark for our third President, the Jefferson River is an essential segment of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail (L&CNHT), administered by the National Park Service. However, as a trail, it is a park with length, but not width. The Jefferson River is part of the national historic trail, yet there is no formal protection for the river. Much of the Jefferson is threatened by development, and camping opportunities are limited.

From the perspective of a floater on the river, the Jefferson retains much of its original character from the days of Lewis and Clark.

From the perspective of a floater on the river, the Jefferson retains much of its original character from the days of Lewis and Clark.

Most of the Jefferson flows through private lands. The area is sliced and diced by fences, roads, and development. Yet, from the perspective of a floater on the river, the Jefferson retains much of its original character from the days of Lewis and Clark. The rich riparian corridor supports everything from deer and moose to beavers, otters, blue herons, bald eagles, and sometimes bears. Viewed from a boat, paddlers see the trees and wildlife in the foreground and the mountains in the background, oblivious to most development along the way.

Our organization, a chapter of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation, is working to educate landowners about conservation easements and sensible development choices to preserve the historic character of the river for the enjoyment of all. We are also seeking land for public floater’s camps along the river, and we recently purchased land for a 4.37-acre campsite on the lower Jefferson, near the town of Three Forks, Montana. The goal is not actually to create a national park, but to appreciate and steward our backyard as if it were a national park.

We recently purchased a 4.37-acre campsite on the lower Jefferson.

We recently purchased a 4.37-acre campsite on the lower Jefferson.

We’ve only seen the beginning of the population surge in this area. Now is our last best chance to conserve the Jefferson River for future generations. Do nothing, and the river will be degraded by inappropriate housing developments, riprap along the banks, and “no trespassing” signs from one end to the other. To make a difference, please contribute to our campsite development or go to www.JeffersonRiver.org and sign up for our email discussion group.

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Thomas J. Elpel
April 13, 2014
Updated September 28, 2014

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