The state's proposed 27,616-acre Spotted Dog acquisition entered the home stretch Monday morning when the Montana State Board of Land Commissioners unanimously voted in favor of the $16.6 million deal. Now the only remaining question concerns funding—and the answer is already clear.
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) applied for a grant earlier this summer through the Natural Resource Damage Program (NRDP) to fund its purchase of the Spotted Dog property from the Rock Creek Cattle Company. The Trustee Advisory Council meets next Thursday to issue recommendations on the agency's grant request. The final decision on rewarding the grant, however, rests squarely in Gov. Brian Schweitzer's hands.
Late last month, Schweitzer voiced his first public words of skepticism over the purchase when he stated there was a greater than 50 percent chance the state would be beat to the deal by private sector interests. Schweitzer's confidence grew after the FWP Commission and the Land Board finalized their opinions.
"I'm becoming more optimistic all the time that this is going to make it to my desk," Schweitzer says.
FWP's final goal is to designate the property a Wilderness Management Area and allow for public access from May 15 to November 30. But public comment has outlined concerns ranging from limited road access to uncertain long-term funding. The proposal includes roughly $1.2 million for five-year maintenance expenses, yet FWP has no concrete plans beyond that.
"You've got to maintain fences, you've got to take care of weeds," says FWP spokesman Ron Aasheim. "But that's down the road. We have sources of funding for maintenance, and we don't buy property unless we have the ability to maintain it."
The main focus of debate over Spotted Dog continues to be the appropriateness of using NRDP funds for the purchase. Scores of residents have spoken out against FWP's grant application, arguing that the money should instead be spent on restoring portions of the Clark Fork watershed contaminated by historic mining activity.
Spotted Dog critics have one more chance to speak their minds on Aug. 26. But in the end, it appears the only voice with any weight will belong to one of the acquisition's biggest supporters: Schweitzer.