Garnet in the Rough 

With much of its land up for sale, the future of Garnet ghost town becomes uncertain

The town of Garnet was not built with permanence in mind.

Thrown up in a burst of building activity in 1897 and ‘98, Garnet’s wooden buildings lacked foundations and were constructed quickly, with little thought for the future. It was, after all, a gold mining camp, and time spent at home was time and money wasted.

Nineteenth century miners would no doubt be amused, then, if they knew of the battle currently being waged over the future of their once futureless little town.

Despite well-intentioned attempts at civilizing a rough landscape, early Garnet experienced the same boom-and-bust cycle that marked all frontier mining towns.

In 1972 Garnet became a bona fide ghost town when the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) obtained title to a large portion of the town. More than 22,000 people visit Garnet every year.

But today, a portion of Garnet is for sale. More accurately, 640 acres surrounding the town, and a chunk within it, were recently put on the market for $3 million when the owners failed to reach a sale agreement with the BLM.

The story is a long, complex tale of the efforts of one family to sell private land to the federal government—land the federal government wants, but, according to the Realtor involved, is unwilling to pay what the family is asking.

In 1958, the Charlton family of Missoula began buying up land and mineral rights near Garnet, intending to revive the mining activity in the area. Thirty years later, the Charltons founded the Garnet Mining Company to develop their land’s mining and recreational possibilities.

Those development possibilities clashed with the government’s management plan, and included a contract with Canadian gold mining company Pegasus Gold to mine ore on the Charlton property. The overall development plan also outlined an ambitious scheme to recreate a replica of Garnet’s main street on adjacent Charlton family property, including the construction of a $900,000 hotel and world-class restaurant, and reconstruction of an ore processing mill.

But according to the Charlton’s Realtor, Alecia Curry of Hamilton, the recreational plan foundered when the BLM found it to be in conflict with the agency’s own Garnet Ghost Town management plan.

Though the Charltons had found willing investors in both mining and recreational plans, neither project came to fruition, in part because the BLM put its foot down, but also because the agency intimated that it would buy the land. “It’s like condemning it without going through the process,” Curry says.

Curry says an independent appraiser was hired by both her clients and the BLM to determine the mineral value of the property. A year later, the mineral appraisal was completed, and a $3 million price tag was put on the land.

But the BLM rejected the appraisal and scheduled a second, which took another year. The result was about the same as the first, with the land and its mineral rights valued again at about $3 million. Curry says the BLM rejected the second appraisal as well.

The agency, she adds, then asked for a third appraisal, this time for the land only, without the mineral rights factored in. That appraisal was completed last February, but the Charltons haven’t seen it. The only word her clients have received from the BLM is that the agency would need yet another year to complete negotiations.

And that’s where the federal government has her clients over a barrel, she says.

The Charltons, she says, must sell their 640 acres either in one piece, as they prefer, or in parcels, which they would like to avoid, in order to stave off imminent bankruptcy. The BLM knows this, she claims, and is willing to wait until the last legal second until the land is foreclosed upon, parcel by parcel, and then buy it up cheap at auction.

“It’s my belief they’re going to wait around until it’s sold at auction for 10 cents on the dollar,” she says. “It’s not a secret that my client is in financial distress. I know and understand the BLM has to follow a lot of rules and regulations, but I no longer think this is the case. … I really understand [the BLM’s] desire to get their hands on it for as little as possible, but that’s not the way our government should work.”

There also has been bad blood between the Charltons and the non-profit Garnet Preservation Association (GPA), which works with the BLM to preserve the ghost town.

Curry says a GPA board member called her to get information about the advertised sale and threatened her. According to Curry, the woman said, “We’re watching you, and if you step out of line, we’ll get you.”

Kevin McCann, president of the GPA, acknowledges the hostility between the Charltons and the GPA. He says the family’s development plans have conflicted with the preservation goals for Garnet, but he denies that anyone threatened Curry. “I don’t know where she’s coming from,” he says. “That [allegation] so put us off we decided to have no more contact with her at all.”

If Curry is frustrated at the BLM’s dealings, which she categorizes as less than honest, then the Charltons’s attorney Dave Rodli is downright angry. “We’ve been dealing with the BLM for three years,” he says. “One delay after another. My clients feel they have been dragging their feet to make things difficult. There’s a long history there and it’s not a happy history. I cannot tell you with any certainty at all exactly what’s in the mind of the BLM. But it is a fact that with the passage of time it makes it difficult for my clients to hang on. It takes a tremendous amount of energy and, frankly, expense, to be neighbors with the BLM.”

The BLM’s field manager, Nancy Anderson, says her agency considers the appraisals to be feasibility studies, and as such are inadequate for sales negotiation purposes. “We use those studies as a basis to say there might be mineable ore bodies under that property,” she says. The BLM won’t buy any parcels that contain ore since anyone could then stake mining claims, Anderson adds.

As for claims that the BLM is deliberately dragging its feet on the sale, waiting for the Charltons to go belly-up, Anderson says, “That’s interesting, I guess.” The BLM, she notes, is simply reviewing the final land appraisal: “We’re hoping it’s going to be done soon.”

Curry has had interested buyers. A couple of timber companies, for instance, expressed interest in the property, not for timber harvest since there aren’t many trees left on it, but as land they could trade with other, more valuable BLM timber lands. Curry says the BLM had the money to buy the Charlton lands and has timbered properties to trade. But with her clients on the verge of losing their lands, and the BLM poised to snap it up for a fraction of its appraised value, the agency has no incentive to enter into good-faith bargaining with any potential timber company buyers, she says. Anderson replies, “I’m not sure what she’s referring to.”

But the timber companies have been scared off by the protracted battle between the Charltons and the BLM, says Curry, and are no longer interested.

Now that the land is on the open market, it’s likely to be sold off in small parcels of 20 acres or so. She shudders when she thinks of the kind of person who might be interested in buying isolated parcels of land accessed by bad roads. It is, she says, precisely the kind of land that attracts anti-government survivalists who would consider taking on the BLM as an enjoyable sport. If the BLM thinks the Charltons are difficult to work with, she says, wait until the survivalists move in.

Curry hopes it won’t happen. She and her clients would still like to see the BLM buy the land at the $3 million appraised value. It would be the best way to keep a parcel of Montana history intact.

“Once this starts being sold in little pieces, it’s going to be like Humpty Dumpty, or like what we see in the Bitterroot,” she says. “They’ll never put it back together again.”

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