Augusta, Mont.• Falls Creek certainly lives up to its name.

The hallmark of the stream-carved valley sits hidden in its steep bottom, the creek hitting the edge and dropping a few stories into the pool below. On a recent day, area ranchers Dan and Wyatt Barrett stood on the edge of the canyon, listening to the dull thunder of the falls and looking up the valley jutting north from the Dearborn River.

“It’s time to get this opened up,” Dan Barrett told Helena’s Independent Record.

Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Game Warden Bryan Golie, left, and Mike Mueller with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation introduce the Barrett property and Fall Creek Vally during a tour on Oct. 19, 2018. Under a deal recently reached, and pending fundraising, the property could become the newest piece of the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest and open up access to about 26,000 acres of public land. (Thom Bridge/Independent Record via AP)

The Barretts were joined on their property southwest of Augusta on Oct. 19 by Mike Mueller with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, U.S. Forest Service District Ranger Michael Munoz and Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Game Warden Bryan Golie. The Barretts own more than 440 acres between the county road and national forest boundary. But under a deal recently reached, and pending fundraising, the property could become the newest piece of the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest and open up access to about 26,000 acres (40 square miles) of public land.

“With the big picture, this really sews up what we want all the way to Highway 200,” Golie said. “In 25 years as a game warden, I’ve never seen an opportunity that will provide so much for the public.”

The project is a national priority for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.

“I would echo that with my 30 years of experience, I mean you don’t even see things like this in national parks,” Mueller said. “And to have a willing landowner, and I don’t always get to say this, it really doesn’t get any bigger and better than this for RMEF.”

Falls Creek has a long and at times tragic history of clashes over access. While the Barretts’ property has remained closed for years due to trespass and liability concerns, an access dispute in a subdivision across the creek turned deadly in 2013 when Joseph Campbell shot and killed neighbor Timothy Newman. Campbell would eventually plead no contest in 2016 to negligent homicide.

The Barrett family homesteaded their property more than a century ago and continue to trail cattle across it to Forest Service grazing leases. After some “tough negotiations,” Dan Barrett decided he was comfortable with waiting out the public process and likely seeing a lower return on the property.

“A lot of people were upset when access was shut off and I didn’t want to see it subdivided, or another disaster over access,” Dan Barrett said. ”They’re really in a position to handle the public,” he said of the Forest Service and FWP.

The Barretts agreed to the appraised sale price of about $2.4 million. The Elk Foundation has until 2020 to raise the money, and once purchased, convey the property to the Forest Service.

“This is a great opportunity with a nonprofit taking the lead, but what’s also great is we’re really in control of the future here. The faster they get the money, the faster we can open the door,” Golie said.

RMEF has raised about $500,000 to date from major donors. The organization will continue to pursue large and small private donations and is pursuing up to $2 million in Lewis and Clark County Open Space Bond.

“We’re in Lewis and Clark County and we really feel like the citizens of Lewis and Clark County will be some of the biggest beneficiaries of this project,” Mueller said.

Connie Cole chairs the Citizens Advisory Committee on Open Lands, which makes recommendations to the county commission on potential open space projects. RMEF submitted an initial proposal to the committee along with a site visit and will go back before the committee with a second level proposal on Nov. 7. The county commission makes final approval of projects and decides funding levels.

“The open space bond doesn’t require public access as part of our criteria, but because it does have public access it’s even more of a gem,” Cole said. “I think on this one it’s one of those particular places in Montana that really need to be protected for the public in perpetuity.”

Mueller also hopes to tap funding from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund; however, the fund recently expired and faces an uncertain reauthorization. Even without those dollars, Mueller says he feels confident about meeting contractual deadlines.

Munoz admires the property for its ecological beauty as well as potential for recreation. Falls Creek starts and ends on public ground, it has no water rights to be diverted, and the falls make a natural barrier that lends itself to restoration of native cutthroat trout.

“It gets to the Dearborn River, so it has both boating access and forest access,” he said.

The layout has everything necessary for development into a trailhead, campground and fishing access site. Under the existing travel management plan, public access would be managed as nonmotorized, and hikers, mountain bikers and horseback riders could access trail systems all the way to and over the Continental Divide, Munoz said.

When it comes to elk, Golie believes the access could affect hunting as far away as Lincoln. The district currently holds a herd of 1,000 — about 400 over population objectives — but elk have shifted their migratory patterns over the years. Falls Creek could put hunters where they need to be when winter weather hits the high country, he said.

“Within an hour you can be in the migration path,” Golie said. “This is a key, strategic opportunity that’ll make hunting better and hopefully take some of the burden off these private landowners.”

Information from: Independent Record, http://www.helenair.com