Residents, agencies discuss public lands
November 24, 2022
Nearly 80 people gathered at the Sanders County Fairgrounds pavilion last Tuesday evening to hear an appeal from two local men to convince residents to put pressure on the state or federal government to purchase nearly 12,000 acres of wilderness for the general public to use.
MKH Montana, a 401k trust for a highway patrol in another state, is selling 11,804 acres of wilderness in Sanders County and 7,711 acres in Mineral County. MKH has already sold some acreage, which is now closed to the public, causing an outcry to many who have hunted it when it was previously owned by Weyerhaeuser Timber Company or Plum Creek Timber.
Cody Carr of Plains and Zach Whipple-Kilmer of Thompson Falls organized the meeting to inform people that they should contact their elected officials to buy the land. They are also volunteers with the Wildhorse Plains Public Access Project, a nonprofit organization with the goal of putting large tracts of private land back into the public arena. It was Whipple-Kilmer who worked for more than a year to get a 48,000-acre conservation easement in the Thompson River drainage in 2020 and 2021.
At the meeting, the state was represented by Dave Olsen, the unit manager of the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation in Plains, and Lee Anderson, supervisor for Fish, Wildlife & Parks Region 1 in Kalispell, along with Dave Wrobleski, the ranger at Plains-Thompson Falls District Ranger, and Ryan Domsalla, the Forest Service's supervisory realty specialist and team leader in Missoula. Montana State Senator Bob Brown, Sanders County Commissioner Claude Burlingame, as well as Commissioners-Elect Dan Rowan and John Holland also attended the meeting.
"We want to keep this land open to everyone and the only way to possibly do this, and it's a long shot, is to try to get the DNRC or Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation or Fish, Wildlife & Parks, or a combination of all three, to possibly purchase this," said Carr, owner of Cody Carr's Hunting Adventures outfitting service since 2004. Some folks have complained that Carr leased and posted property in the area that had been previously open to the public and believed that he was doing this to get additional areas to use for his clients.
"I know that some of you guys are thinking that I'm trying to do this for our business, but I just want to let you know that if the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation or FWP decides to purchase this, I can't outfit it, and I'm fine with that," said Carr, who was born and raised in Plains. "This is something that's dear to all of our hearts. It blocks off a lot of Forest Service and state ground and I am super passionate about the area. My house is back there, all of us have hunted it in the past and we have a lot of memories on that land," he said.
"We have the utmost respect for private property rights and MKH Montana has been a very willing and generous landowner when it comes to public access since they've owned the land," according to the Wildhorse Plains Public Access Project website, which also stated that it was working toward a "long term solution to keep access open to the public and timberlands open to logging as it has been for generations before and hopefully, generations to come."
The property in Sanders County is divided into more than 20 tracts in various acreage sizes. In Mineral County, where sales have already started, there are 17 sections that range from 57.70 acres, selling for $288,500, to 1,529.09 acres priced at $2,293,635.
Burlingame and commissioners Tony Cox and Glen Magera drafted a letter to show their united support of the project and concurred with the need to maintain access to public lands. "The involved lands provide several access points to the C-C Divide trail network, as well as thousands of acres of public land. Private ownership of the involved lands has the potential to lead to an unending stream of conflict between private landowners and the public regarding access to public lands in the Swamp Creek Drainage," the letter reads.
Carr said people need to do everything they can to keep this land open. "I know outfitting isn't the most popular thing and I don't want to be doing this right in the middle of my busiest time of the year, but it's that important to me," said Carr. "I want this to be open to everybody and if we can do something so this is open for generations, that would be awesome, that would be absolutely fantastic," he said.
The people at the meeting were all residents of Sanders County with the exception of one from Mineral County. Several people spoke up to ask questions about the project while others voiced their concerns on the importance of keeping the lands open for hunting, collecting firewood, fishing and hiking. A few complained about the no trespassing signs put up in their favorite areas. A couple of people complained about gates and postings in other areas that had nothing to do with the property in question. Jerry Carr, Cody's father and an outfitter for 45 years, asked the group if any of them opened their property to the public for hunting and no one had. "These people have a right to close their place to hunting," he said.
"This land historically has never been available and so that's part of the marketability here, that somebody could come in and own something that historically has never been available," said John Hickman of Compass South Land Sales, the realty broker hired by MKH. Hickman stated that he was on the public's side as to the outcome of the property and would like to see it sold to the government, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation or some other conservationist type entity and placed back in the hands of the community.
Hickman said that the residents of Sanders County have about two years to get the government to acquire the land because it is not yet on the market. "Until then, we will be actively selling this stuff, which starts with Mineral County first," he said. Hickman told the crowd that MKH will "bend over backward" to help, as long as they don't lose money. One suggestion he made was that people target smaller portions of the property that would have corridors of access to the state or federal lands.
"I feel that you guys do have some time and I will be more than willing to work with whomever to try to figure out how we can pull money together so this ends in the right hands and ends up in the way the community would like it to end up," said Hickman, who added that the seller is far more open to selling it to the state or federal government.
Olsen said that DNRC is looking into options and the possibility of getting some or all of the land, which might include partnering with the federal government. He said the state already has about 53,000 acres in Sanders County that is open for public use. "I think it's good that we have the support of the public and the community," said Olsen, who has headed the Plains DNRC office since 2013. He told the crowd that DNRC has to have a 3-4% return on their investment. Carr believes the state or federal government could recoup some of their investment from timber companies, but he said there is rock quarry potential, grazing lease possibilities, and rental options of campsites or RV sites.
Anderson also said that FWP is interested in some type of arrangement to purchase and maybe work with another agency or the RMEF. Most of the MKH lands are still in the FWP Block Management program.
The Forest Service has acquired property from private individuals or companies in the past, said Domsalla, who also noted that there is potential to work with the state and county to acquire parts of the property. "The Plains-Thompson Falls Ranger District continues to be supportive of providing public access, while respecting adjacent landowner's property rights," said Wrobleski, who added that he was thankful for the invitation from the community to participate as a partner in the ongoing dialogue. He later said that he was "encouraged and fully supports continued partnership to find creative solutions to protect public access."
Whipple-Kilmer said that MKH delayed selling the property during the pandemic, when they could have made a bigger profit. "Their intention and hope is that it would stay open if at all possible, but they can't just not sell their land. The land's going to sell, regardless if the state or FWP or Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation buys it," said Whipple-Kilmer, who has lived in Montana for the last 10 years. The Thompson Falls resident felt the meeting was fruitful, believing that many people will take action and communicate the issue with their legislative representatives. Sen. Brown suggested that if people write officials about the situation their letters or emails should be personal, short and succinct.
"I think it went really well as far as getting the movement started. I wanted to get our legislators and our county commissioners to put pressure on the FWP, DNRC and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation to find a way to acquire this land to be able to be used by future generations," said Whipple-Kilmer. "We want to get the momentum of the meeting with the community to help these agencies better understand why it's so important to acquire this land," he added.
Carr also felt the meeting went well. He said there are plans for group members to meet with representatives of the state and federal governments. Carr said he's already been in contact with the governor's office, but added that it's important for residents to voice their sentiments to their legislative representatives.
"Everybody's goal here is to get as much as we possibly can open for public recreation and access," said Carr. "Ultimately, it's going to take a lot of work from everybody in this room. I just really hope that everyone understands this is a long shot and we need to do everything we can and be respectful to people, but at the same time let them know how important this is to us," said Carr. "This is right on our back door. This is more important to us than anybody else in northwest Montana. We live here."