By MICHAEL NOYES and PHIL DRAKE
A state panel on Wednesday recommended the Trustee Restoration Council approve the purchase, with six funding conditions, of the 27,616-acre Spotted Dog property near Avon for $15.2 million.
The area is considered to be Montana’s second-largest piece of intact contiguous grassland west of the Continental Divide.
The Upper Clark Fork River Basin Remediation and Restoration Advisory Council made their recommendation by a unanimous vote in Deer Lodge, according to an official with the Natural Resource Damage Program.
The panel approved six funding conditions that included instructions to seek additional funding partners, recommending the FWP make annual reports on the status of improvements, and protecting the tax base of Powell County. (See full list below)
Two other funding considerations considered by the panel did not gain the support of the full group, including a proposed recommendation on annual operation and maintenance money.
The Trustee Restoration Council is expected to take up the issue at their meeting later this month. It’s been a busy past couple months for Spotted Dog. In July, it was the subject of a public hearing in Deer Lodge in which no vote was taken.
On Aug. 5, the FWP approved the purchase, using an NRDP grant, to turn the ranch into state wildlife management area and have seasonal public access.
On Monday, the state Land Board approved the purchase contingent upon the NRDP money. “It’s an extraordinary opportunity,” Gov. Brian Schweitzer has said. “It is a wonderful piece of wildlife habitat.”
The land, owned by Y-T Timber LLC (aka RY Timber) and under lease to purchase by Rock Creek Cattle Co., is bordered on two sides by national forest property.
It is home to what state officials say is the largest concentration of wintering elk in the Upper Clark Fork River basin.
Officials said the proposal qualifies for NRDP funding by restoring or replacing resources injured by mining and smelting in the Upper Clark Fork basin. But it requires amending the NRDP’s grant process to get funding outside the regular grant cycle.
The NRDP was created in 1990 to prepare the state’s lawsuit against Atlantic Richfield Co. for damages to natural resources in the Upper Clark Fork River Basin.
The settlement earmarked about $130 million. The governor makes the final funding decisions on grant projects.
If approved, the state will pay $15.2 million or about $550 an acre, for 42 square miles of land. The state has also asked for $1.2 million for maintenance for five years.
Other costs were also factored in for the request. The FWP would also lease 10,260 acres of adjoining Department of Natural Resources and Conservation lands to establish at 38,000-acre Wildlife Management Area.
The proposal still has to go to the Governor’s Trustee Restoration Council later this month for approval.
Schweitzer has said previous governors have used NRDP funds to buy property. Some people have said the proposal has been put on a fast track and bypassed normal procedural steps.
State officials say the property just became available and they fear that if the state doesn’t buy it, a private party will.
Criticism by some people attending a July 14 public hearing in Deer Lodge arose after residents learned Schweitzer was first contacted by Rock Creek Cattle Co., which was going to buy the property from Y-T for $9 million and then sell it to the state for about $15 million. On July 23, the state Legislature’s Environmental Quality Council committee debated the merits of the state purchasing the ranch, but took no action. Summary of the Advisory Council funding conditions and recommendations to the Trustee Restoration Council.
The Advisory Council approved Spotted Dog with the following funding conditions:
1. Seek additional funding partners – unanimous
2. Encouraged to include cattle grazing for all future wma plans – unanimous
3. AC made it clear – part of long range planning effort and to be included as part of terrestrial allocation – Unanimous
4. Any future sales of property will be subject to AC and TRC and approval; funds generated from any future sale of the property will be refunded to NRD fund; in the event the restoration needs become such that need for more money – the sale of this property could be subject AC and TRC recommendation – unanimous
5. With any future exchange – the tax base of Powell County be protected – unanimous
6. Funding for operation and maintenance be excluded – withdrawn
7. Recommend 300,000 o and m with the idea that other organizations can step up to the plate or come back each year for operation and maintenance money – no second – motion fails
8. Recommended the FWP make an annual report as to the status of improvements.
Unanimous AC recommended to the TRC to approve Spotted Dog with the 6 conditions listed above.
– Information provided by an official from the Natural Resource Damage Program