Twelve years ago, Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks' regional supervisor Mack Long eyed a prime swath of Plum Creek forestland—a vital corridor for itinerant critters—and started plotting ways for the state to buy it.
Plum Creek Timber Co. had not yet morphed from a logging outfit into a real estate developer. Nor had the Nature Conservancy and The Trust for Public Land launched the Montana Legacy Project to buy more than 300,000 of Plum Creek's acres and transfer them to public and private hands for conservation. But Long, the supervisor for FWP's western region, knew the Fish Creek drainage west of Alberton was in serious need of protection.
This spring, after all those years of waiting, Long and an untold number of anglers, hunters and hikers are finally turning the vision into reality. FWP is slated to close a $17 million deal to buy nearly 41,000 acres of the Fish Creek drainage from the Nature Conservancy and protect some 34,757 acres of it as a wildlife management area, with the rest potentially used for a park.
The purchase, which uses a mix of state park and federal wildlife conservation money, marks the first transfer of Legacy Project lands to the state.
"Fish Creek has had a pretty rough life," Long says. "It's been heavily logged. It's been burned. And in spite of all those things, it continues to function as one of the major connectivity corridors—connecting everything from Bob Marshall country over to the Mission Mountains, to Ninemile, to Fish Creek, into the proposed Great Burn wilderness area, and even down into the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness."
The landscape provides migration routes for Canada lynx, grizzly bears, wolverines and other rare carnivores. It holds important winter range for elk, deer and moose, and is home to abundant bird species, from great blue herons to peregrine falcons. It also encompasses Fish Creek and its tributaries—prime habitat for threatened species like bull trout.
Chris Bryant, the Nature Conservancy's outreach director in Western Montana, calls the watershed the best bull trout-spawning habitat in the lower Clark Fork river system. "I have my own reasons for liking the drainage," Bryant adds. "I can only tell you it involves huckleberries."
The park portion of the proposed deal sets aside 6,188 acres for what would become the second largest state park in Montana. Located between Alberton and Tarkio along I-90—and adjacent to the Alberton Gorge—the new Fish Creek State Park could offer everything from trails and biking to expanded campgrounds, cross-country skiing, and a campsite for horseback riders, according to FWP.
Final plans for the park are expected to take three years to formulate, Long says, and will incorporate extensive public involvement.
"We think we've worked out a solution that's compatible to fish and wildlife," he says. "And we need to work with the neighbors in that area to make sure that what gets built there is something that they're comfortable and can live with."