Missoulian: Tenderfoot Creek drainage land acquired by Forest Service

HELENA – Speakers at the Capitol on Friday celebrated the newest addition to the Lewis and Clark National Forest by rallying behind the uncertain future of the fund that made the acquisition a reality.

Gov. Steve Bullock, U.S. Sens. Steve Daines and Jon Tester, and USDA Undersecretary Robert Bonnie were among those who supported reauthorizing the Land and Water Conservation Fund at a celebration for completion of the Tenderfoot Legacy Project. The project was an eight-year, $10.7 million effort between the Bair Ranch Foundation, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Tenderfoot Trust and the U.S. Forest Service to place more than 8,200 acres of private ranchland in Meagher County into public ownership.

Funding came from a combination of $10.1 million LWCF and $500,000 of nonfederal funds from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and Montana Fish and Wildlife Conservation Trust. LWCF, which uses royalties from offshore oil and gas for conservation, is set to sunset at the end of September unless reauthorized by Congress and signed by the president.

Hosted by White Sulphur Springs District ranger Carol Hatfield and Elk Foundation senior lands program manager Mike Mueller, the celebration kicked off in classic RMEF style with elk bugles from several members of the audience with elk calls.

Purchasing the patchwork of lands making up the old Bair Ranch took nine separate transactions as funding became available, connecting a much larger contiguous habitat for elk and other wildlife, they said. The project may have taken longer than planned, but the result is a publicly accessible area of the forest north of White Sulphur Springs, which includes Tenderfoot Creek, a tributary of the Smith River.

Such a celebration was fitting as Montana celebrates the first Open Land Month, Bullock said. While many Montanans are already counting down to hunting season, the deadline for LWCF was also high on their minds, he said, adding that it has funded $237 million in projects since 2005.

“Montanans are counting on lawmakers in Washington to permanently reauthorize LWCF,” he said. “Montana would be a substantially different place if it weren’t for the foresight of folks in 1965 when LWCF was created. There are only 80 days left between today’s celebration and what from my perspective would be a monumental failure of public policy.”

Bonnie followed Bullock, praising the partnerships Montana has successfully cultivated around conservation.

“I can tell you there are a lot of places that look here to Montana for leadership not only for the Land and Water Conservation Fund but for conservation in general,” he said.

Tester, D-Mont., spoke by video, praising former Sen. Max Baucus for his support of the Tenderfoot Legacy Project. Now is not the time to shift LWCF from habitat and conservation to fighting fire or management, he said, now is the time to permanently reauthorize the fund.

Daines, R-Mont., made the major announcement that he has signed on as a co-sponsor to a bill permanently reauthorizing LWCF. Some conservation groups criticized Daines earlier this year when he voted against a clean reauthorization amendment, saying he was looking for improvements to the fund’s administration.

Tester is already a co-sponsor of the reauthorization bill.

“When you think what it is about America that sets us apart from every other country in the world, it is our public lands,” Daines said. “It’s more than about a map, it’s about the memories that are created from our access to our public lands.”

The concept of public lands, including checkerboard ownership that placed the Bair parcels as inholdings within the national forest, is nearly impossible for eastern senators in states with little public lands to understand, he said. Although progress is being made, it is not being made as fast as he would like, Daines added.

It is human nature to always look back and second guess decisions that are made, said Wayne Hirsch, president of the Bair Ranch Foundation. It was on a recent trip into the area that he knew the decision to see the ranch go into public ownership was the right one.

“This was the right decision for the people of Montana and the people of this great country because you need to be grounded in Mother Nature,” he said. “It brings us all back to our roots and I think that is one of the reasons I am completely at ease with this decision.”