To many in the Woodchuck Creek development southeast of Lolo, Baldy Mountain epitomizes a powerful connection to the surrounding landscape. On a clear day the summit offers a view north to Missoula and the Mission Mountains and south along the Bitterroot Range. This corner of the Sapphire Mountains, part of the least developed wildlife corridor in the Bitterroot Valley, teems with wildlife, attracting a wide range of hunters and casual hikers. The roughly 80 landowners in the Woodchuck have worked hard to protect it, from turning in poachers to dousing lightning fire starts.
"Our community is just constantly interacting with Baldy Mountain," says Woodchuck landowner Allen Byrd. "It's overwhelming how important that mountain is to us."
Which is why those residents—who formed the grassroots group Friends of Baldy late last month—have openly questioned a proposed land sale near Baldy that could alter public access to the mountain and surrounding area. MPG Ranch, a 6,200-acre swath of private conservation property just below the Woodchuck development, approached The Nature Conservancy (TNC) last November with a proposal to purchase 1,440 acres of Legacy Project land. The sale, now months into negotiation, would place Baldy Mountain in private hands.
To Byrd and his fellow residents, that news came as an unpleasant surprise.
"Nobody really asked us, nobody promised us anything," Byrd says. "In some ways I feel like we've been looked over. It just seems like one day, poof, all of a sudden there were negotiations happening."
TNC acquired the acreage in question from Plum Creek Timber Company in December 2008 as part of Phase 1 of the Legacy Project, the single largest land purchase the international nonprofit has ever made. Phase 1 alone cost TNC nearly $150 million in money borrowed from the private sector, and the organization has since transferred more than 150,000 acres to federal and state agencies to recoup expenses.
"From the get-go we've been saying our goal is to protect the land's conservation values either with public ownership or private ownership with a conservation easement," says Caroline Byrd, TNC's western Montana program director. "[The Baldy Mountain sale] would be our first public out-sale of the Legacy Project."
Byrd says TNC will sell the property for its appraised value, but would not comment on the amount or how it compares to the price TNC paid in 2008.
Woodchuck residents care more about changes in public access than sales figures. In particular, by purchasing the TNC tracts, the ranch will completely surround a large plot of land held by the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC), to which the public is legally entitled access. That access lies at the root of Friends of Baldy's desire for more involvement in the sale discussions.
"Word got around to different folks, and people asked, 'What can we do? How can we ensure our access to that state land?'" Allen Byrd says. "Typically I don't meddle in private affairs. I totally support private land rights...but because the state section is in the equation of this and the sale influences the access, I think that bumps it into the public realm."
A July 26 media statement from MPG Ranch Manager Philip Ramsey states the ranch plans to offer public access to the land through "limited recreational activities and educational tours." Yet Ramsey says hikers will retain the unlimited access to the property they've enjoyed during both Plum Creek and TNC's ownership.
"We don't have any plans to keep people from hiking up to Baldy or to use the ranch for hiking around," Ramsey says. "If someone wants to hike through the ranch, we've never had a problem with that."
The fact the ranch may soon flank portions of state land in the Woodchuck may lead to another deal for MPG. To maintain cohesive land ownership, the DNRC frequently sells isolated holdings through its land banking system. The money is then used to purchase more profitable land to hold in trust for public schools.
Earlier this year, the DNRC actually analyzed its own potential purchase offer for TNC's Woodchuck holdings. Tony Liane, area manager for the DNRC's Southwest Land Office, says the department has no concerns over MPG's emergence as an interested buyer.
"We had given The Nature Conservancy no indication that we wanted first rights or any rights on purchase of land down there," Liane says.
From Ramsey's view, the formation of and fears behind Friends of Baldy are unfounded. Through funding from Jump Trading, an American financial technology firm in Chicago, MPG has already started a series of restoration projects and wildlife studies headed by local biologists. The goal in approaching TNC about an acquisition was "to keep it from being developed," Ramsey says.
"A major motivation of wanting to get that land is that it needs a ton of restoration work," Ramsey says. "The logging operation in there has spread weeds all over the place. The roads are carpeted by knapweed and mullen."
Byrd isn't entirely convinced. There's too much at stake, he says, to trust anything that isn't set in writing. MPG's property lies directly in the path of a vital wildlife corridor between the Bitterroot and Sapphire mountains. MPG may state publicly it has no intentions of subdividing the property or impeding public access, but what happens if the ranch goes belly-up and the property is sold off to someone who will?
"I think we can start calming the fears by having face-to-face conversations with TNC, ourselves and with MPG Ranch," he says.
And until they see some assurances in writing, Friends of Baldy intends to keep asking questions.