Now open to the public, the Falls Creek Project provides access to over 26,000 acres of National Forest.
Words, images, things, places and people all mean something different to each of us. When you hear “Montana,” what does that invoke in YOU? Sunsets that take your breath away, fading behind the mountains after a long day on the dusty trail? A cup of coffee on a cool mountain morning as elk bugle on a distant hillside? Wide-open spaces, babbling streams and meadows of wildflowers every color of the rainbow? Many that reside in Lewis and Clark County, Montana cherish these things, our public lands and wild places.
Recently, Lewis and Clark County had the opportunity to take part in something greater than any individual or organization. On a bluebird day in late August, people mingled in a grassy field surrounded by towering mountains to celebrate. The Dearborn River ran nearby and people gathered. Forest Service personnel in their recognizable green. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks game wardens on horseback, leading pack strings of mules. Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and other non-profit representatives with cameras. Lewis and Clark County staff, politicians, reporters, friends and neighbors making small talk. All were there for one great cause: the Falls Creek Project.
As the event kicked off, the theme was consistent: partnerships and public access. A culmination of foresight, vision, collaboration, fund-raising and action. According to the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, the “442-acre acquisition is a testament to a historic cooperative effort between a willing and generous landowner, Dan Barrett, Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Lewis and Clark County and multiple other private and public partners.”
Adjacent to 26,000 acres of National Forest, the acquisition allows for better access to hunting, camping, hiking, fishing and enjoyment of the incredible views.
Looking back a decade to November 2008, voters in Lewis and Clark County approved the Land, Water, and Wildlife bond measure, a $10 million general obligation bond to protect rivers, streams, and groundwater, conserve working farm, ranch and forestland, protect wildlife areas and preserve open lands and natural areas for recreation and growth management.
While the County Commissioners have final say in which projects to fund, a Citizens Advisory Committee plays a large role in the approval process.
The Citizens Advisory Committee requires each project to have a sponsor. Sponsors include non-profit organizations such as the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Prickly Pear Land Trust, Trust for Public Land, Montana Land Reliance, Blackfoot Challenge, The Nature Conservancy, The Conservation Fund, and Five Valleys Land Trust. Sponsors also include other government agencies such as the United States Forest Service, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.
In the case of the Falls Creek Project, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation recognized the incredible opportunity to obtain this land and transfer it to the public, via the Forest Service. In 2018, the project came to the attention of Lewis and Clark County for consideration of Land, Water, and Wildlife bond money.
In fall 2018, the Lewis and Clark County Commissioners visited the site. At this juncture, the project was gaining steam and RMEF was actively seeking funding opportunities. Partners would eventually include the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, Montana Fish and Wildlife Conservation Trust, Mule Deer Foundation, Great Falls Chapter of SCI, The Conservation Fund, Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s, The Conservation Alliance and numerous private donors, as well as the Lewis and Clark County Open Lands Program via the bond.
Fast forward to spring 2019 and the Board of County Commissioners opened a 30-day public comment period on the proposal, with unanimous support in favor of funding the project. RMEF had continued funding efforts, but to open the land to the public by hunting season, an additional $1.4 million was needed. Due to the overwhelming show of support from organizations and the public, the Commissioners voted to approve the balance.
The project met many criteria set forth by the Citizens Advisory Council in the Open Lands Program Guide, including:
- Protecting habitat for fish and wildlife
- Protecting water resources and water quality
- Preserving open lands and natural areas
- Providing public access and opportunities for recreation.
Falls Creek was the 13th project funded by the bond.
As that August day wound down with lunch and a hike to the falls on Falls Creek, it was obvious to all this was money well spent.