TWIN BRIDGES — The Big Hole joins the Beaverhead and Ruby rivers here to form the Jefferson, which for millennia, has slowly carved a valley between the Tobacco Root Mountains to the east and the Highland Mountains to the west.
It was nearby, in 1805, that the Corps of Discovery's Meriwether Lewis left a note for his co-captain, William Clark, on which river offered the best route for their dugout canoes on the voyage west. The note went unseen by Clark because a beaver cut down the tree bearing the message.
Today, a group known as the Jefferson River Canoe Trail, an associated chapter of the Lewis & Clark Trail Heritage Foundation, uses an 80-acre parcel of state land a few miles down the Jefferson as a campsite. It is known as "Beaver Chew." There they celebrate Lewis and Clark's voyage and the great outdoors. It's one of just a handful of campsites along the river and is surrounded by private property, publicly accessible only by water.
Tom Elpel, a founding member of the canoe trail group, was surprised and upset to learn a state agency was preparing to trade the land into private hands. He's been protesting ever since. But it's been awkward, he said, because he admires the pro-public access proponents of the land swap, primarily the Skyline Sportsmen Association of Butte.
Skyline Sportsman’s Butte director Tony Schoonen says Skyline supports the potential deal because it will provide such a boon for the public.
“It will open up thousands of acres (of public land) which we were locked out of before,” Schoonen told The Montana Standard on Friday.
The public land is at the base of Table Mountain, south of Butte in the Highlands, and is owned by the U.S. Forest Service, Schoonen said. The “huge chunk” of public land has two creeks — Willow Creek and Camp Creek — running through it.
The land swap that would transfer more than 520 acres of state land and the 80-acre Beaver Chew to the private landowner. In exchange, the landowner would give the state a nearby 111-acre parcel along the Big Hole River and a 750-acre upland parcel that would improve access to the 1.2 million-acre Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest. Talks about the swap started between the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation after the 80,000-acre ranch was sold to Swift River Investments, headquartered in Massachusetts, in 2011.
The land along the Big Hole would provide access to much better fishing, Schoonen said. He also thinks the camping at the Big Hole site will be superior than the currently available site on the Jefferson because it’s less brushy.
In addition, the deal appears to meet a key requirement for the state, namely that the public gain access to an equal or greater amount of land, with equal or greater monetary value.
The investment firm's principals are brothers Benjamin, David and Hamilton "Tony" James, an investor whose considerable wealth (Forbes reports it at $1.45 billion) also makes him a notable angler, conservationist and Democratic activist living in New York City.
According to the firm's representative, Mark Sommer of Missoula, Swift River Investments would like to improve privacy near the ranch house and eliminate the Beaver Chew campsite, where he says hunters and others have been trespassing off the public land.
Last December, Montana's Land Board, with constitutional authority over state land, gave the deal preliminary approval. Gov. Steve Bullock, Attorney General Tim Fox, and Secretary of State Linda McCulloch voted yes. Denise Juneau, superintendent of public instruction, and Monica Lindeen, state insurance commissioner, voted no.
The only public comment given was by Elpel and five others, all opposing the Beaver Chew campsite's inclusion in the swap. The investment firm's representative chose not to speak. Neither did any sportsmen. In response to the opposition, Bullock stressed that it was the first of several decisions to be made before any land changed hands.
With the Land Board's preliminary approval, DNRC continued working with Swift River Investments, and last week the agency gave public notice that the land swap was moving into the "environmental analysis" phase, that public comment would be received and that the 80-acre Beaver Chew was still part of the trade.
"It's a win-win," said Leroy Mehring, vice president of Skyline Sportsmen. The addition of the 750-acre block of land 12 miles east of Melrose on Camp Creek Road, along with a seasonal road easement, would improve public access to deer and elk hunting grounds, he said.
And Mehring said that unlike other out-of-state landowners, Swift River Investments has "bent over backwards" to seal the deal. "Anything we've asked for, any concession, they've been willing to work with us," he said this week.
The strong reaction from members of the Jefferson River Canoe Trail against the land swap came as a surprise, but the group was surprised too.
While relatively small and young — founded in 2009 — the Jefferson River Canoe Trail's profile is on the rise. In 2014, they purchased and made public for camping and fishing a 4-acre riverfront parcel named Shoshone Landing near Three Forks.
"The question came up on the 80 acres on the Jefferson. We got together with the sportsmen and we got the Fish and Game involved," said DNRC's Tim Egan in the Dillon office. "Unfortunately, we didn't include them early on because I wasn't aware of them."
Losing public riverfront property is a no-no for the state. But that's been a problem alleviated because the investment firm is giving 111 acres of riverfront property to the state. The issue remains though, for some, that the land is not on the Jefferson River, lying instead along the Big Hole River, eight miles upstream from Beaver Chew.
"It's a lovely piece of property," Elpel said earlier this month during a 15-mile trip down the Big Hole and Jefferson rivers. "I say, if they want to move it to the Jefferson, we'll take it."
Elpel, 48, is an outdoors educator and author who has written several books, the most successful being a beginner's guide to plant identification. The man from Pony believes Montana is changing, that land is being locked up by outsiders, that Montana used to be a place where a person could roam without running into no-trespassing signs and hostile landowners. He considers the Jefferson River his backyard.
Earlier this month, he was unhappy to find a "no trespassing" sign on the southern edge of the Beaver Chew property. It was unclear if it was on the public land or right next to it. Elpel read it as a sign of the investment firm's desire to keep the public away.
"We've seen the same sign further up and both are new," he said. "It implies that Beaver Chew is private when it's not."
But the 111 acres on the Big Hole aren't the only offers aimed at removing the Jefferson River Canoe Trail's opposition. Swift River Investments will give the group $50,000 for conservation work, will place the 80-acre Beaver Chew into a conservation easement, preventing any future development, and will allow camping during summer months on a designated 4-acre area, so long as there's no more than 16 people at one time, and that 24-hour advance notice is given. The public access would be guaranteed through a five-year recreation license with the state, to be renewed so long as "public use is respectful."
With that in mind, proponents of the swap aren't interested in listening to Elpel's argument any further.
"Personally, I told him we weren't going to have any of his crap," Mehring said. "That we weren't going to back him in any way, shape or form. If he wants to throw a monkey wrench in this deal, that's on him."
Bruce Farling, executive director of Trout Unlimited Montana, expressed a similar sentiment. He doesn't understand why the canoe group is fighting so hard. They've been offered another place to camp, and he questions who would want to camp at Beaver Chew anyway.
"Who's gonna want to camp there? It's right next to town. I don't get it," he said.
Farling also doesn't like that the Jefferson River Canoe Trail promotes use of the Jefferson River. "I don't think we need floods of people out there," he said, adding that the Jameses have been great to work with on improving access to the Big Hole River. They recently helped put a fishing access site in next to the High Bridge.
Plus, he said, Elpel and another member "corralled me at a (Public Land/Waters Access Association) meeting and were very aggressive."
Elpel said it was an awkward conversation.
"I sort of knew Bruce Farling from other work we've done together," he said. "The difficult thing is Skyline has sold the land swap to these groups that are voting in favor of it without them hearing the other side. That's the source of our distress."
Now, feeling a bit out-gunned, the Jefferson River Canoe Trail group is mulling its options. The state Land Board will, by the end of the year, make a decision on the swap. So, Elpel has asked members to give him direction on the public comment they will collectively submit to the board and the DNRC.
Should he continue fighting for Beaver Chew or offer an alternative?
Their letter has yet to be submitted, but in its latest draft, it will ask to keep Beaver Chew but list, as its preferred alternative, a 20-acre parcel known as the Waterloo property alongside the Jefferson River, downstream near Parson's Bridge. If the investment firm would purchase and transfer it to the public, the canoe group would support the larger land swap, including the 80-acre Beaver Chew property.
The Parson's Bridge property is listed at $330,000. This same proposal, discussed earlier, was not well accepted, Elpel said. But that was back when the investment firm was offering the canoe group a 4-acre parcel, of what he called "cactus and rock," along the Jefferson.
"We're trying to find ways to move forward and this would definitely be a compromise for us, to go from 80 to 20 acres," Elpel said. "If it's this or no land deal it seems like this would be a no-brainer for someone with those (financial) resources."
Sommer, the Swift River Investments representative in the land swap, said Thursday that the Waterloo option is "way beyond what SRI thinks is reasonable."
— Reporter Susan Dunlap contributed to this story.