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Anaconda conservationist takes a walk through history on new public land

Anaconda conservationist takes a walk through history on new public land

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On Oct. 30, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks closed the deal, and the 600-acre Stumptown Addition to the Garrity Mountain Wildlife Management Area west of Anaconda opened to the public.

Last week, Chris Marchion, an Anaconda public lands advocate at the center of the acquisition, bundled himself and his dog, Jordy, in Green Bay Packers gear, and drove up Stumptown Road to explore the parcel’s crown jewel — a 0.7-mile section of Warm Springs Creek, 1.5 miles from town.

Passing under the new FWP signage, Jordy was first to bound across the snow-covered grassy plain, flanked by aspen shrubs and cottonwoods, to the creek’s edge. The banks are steep and the creek flat and busy through the section, and the sun did its part, shining bright off the cold stream and snow. It’s a nice piece of land.

Taking in the fruits of his and fellow advocates’ labor, Marchion said, “It’s not my first rodeo.”

Marchion is 68 years old. As an officer of the Anaconda Sportsmen’s Club, he has made a mission of securing land for public recreation and conservation, estimating he has helped facilitate the transition of nearly 100,000 acres into public ownership over 30 years.

He pointed out the creek’s rocky bottom — a friend to trout — and the invasive knapweed. Then Marchion took a big step back in time. Because the Stumptown Addition is just the latest chapter in a long story of the land.

“It was ours once. It got stolen from us,” Marchion said. “We’re just getting it back.”

He told the tale — the short and funny version, anyway.

It was the early 1900s, and President Theodore Roosevelt — “the forest guy” — was angry. The Anaconda Company was king of copper then, and the land around Anaconda was mostly national forest — public, in other words. The U.S. Forest Service was brand new.

The Anaconda Company needed water and lumber for its operations, and its operations polluted incredibly. Teddy sent the attorney general to talk to the Anaconda Company about its pollution problem.

Standing aside the creek, Marchion summarized the dialogue.

“You’re killing our trees. We’re going to shut you down.”

“You can’t do that. ’Cause see all these poor Irish bastards that came here from the potato famine? They’ll starve.”

“You’re killing our trees.”

“They’re not your trees.”

For the Anaconda Company had gone and made a trade with the U.S. Forest Service — 175,000 acres of national forest around Anaconda for the same acreage of fine timber country north of Missoula.

“And you have to tell that story, because if you understand it, then you understand me,” Marchion said. “I'm not going to let somebody sell my heritage out. We’re going to put it back in public ownership.”

So Marchion grew up in Anaconda in the days when the Anaconda Company owned the land, jeeped and snowmobiled with his buddies, hunted and fished where he pleased. The period was an outdoor free-for-all for the youth of the time. In a way, they were simple times, and despite what the company was doing to the water, soil and air, it ruled its forests with a simple rule — don’t mess it up, and don’t burn it down.

But those days didn’t last. The Anaconda Company went broke and Atlantic Richfield bought the company in the late ’70s. Marchion returned to Anaconda from Helena just in time for the beginning of a new era — one in which the land was so polluted that two things had happened: Forest ownership had started changing hands, and the cause and means to sue for injuries to natural resources and recreation was on the horizon.

The forest service got the ball rolling with the first big land purchase, using the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, sustained by offshore oil and gas drilling royalties since 1965. About half of that land became FWP’s Mount Haggin Game Range. Marchion joined lobbying efforts that created the Department of Justice Natural Resource Damage Protection Program in 1990 and won a $230 million settlement to clean up waterways in 1999.

But some of the original Anaconda Company land ended up in the hands of private landowners. As the representative from the Anaconda Sportsmen’s Club to the board of the Montana Wildlife Federation, Marchion used his real estate savvy to garner local support in Anaconda, and get the land back.

Zooming out, the Stumptown land is a small addition to the patchwork making up another 9,907 acres of the Garrity Mountain WMA. The southern end of the addition, on the other side of Stumptown Road, is hilly bench and canyon country — critical winter range for elk and deer, and summer range for bighorn sheep. Most of the Garrity Mountain WMA was bought back since 2000, along with a great deal of other land. Marchion had a hand in all of it.

The Stumptown Addition was left out of previous deals, because, due to the road access, it was too expensive at the time. Most land gained in the 2000s was undeveloped and therefore more affordable.

Mike Mueller of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation was central to the latest deal, and Marchion was among the conservationists who gained community support and funding to work out the deal with FWP and the landowners this go around. The Montana Land Board unanimously approved the deal this past summer, and the $1.5 million bulk of funding for the $1,711,500 purchase was provided by the NRDP. FWP Habitat Montana and the RMEF each put in $100,000, and $75,000 came from the Montana Fish & Wildlife Conservation Trust.

The FWP, which strongly supported the purchase, said that, had the land not been bought, it would have likely been subdivided and developed.

Taking Jordy for his first stroll through the property, Marchion pondered how it ought to be developed now. That’s his latest passion — building access. Perhaps a trail system, he thought. He might be getting too he excited, he said, but maybe even a campground.

The land sits quiet, and it’s easy to guess not many people have visited since it became public two weeks ago. To some, it might already seem perfect, just the way it is. But for Marchion, the trick is to get the public to use it. To love it. 

Because he’s from an old industry town, where industry changed the face of public land for over 100 years. He said small developments make the land more accessible to more people. Taking ownership can stop the big developments that might otherwise damage the land. 

“The more they take ownership in it, the less they're going to let these politicians screw with our public resources,” he said.

Julie Golla, a wildlife biologist for FWP Region 2, said that in 2021 a large parking area will be built off Stumptown Road to accommodate multiple horse trailers and standard vehicles, but there are no current plans for building bathroom facilities, fishing access, or to develop trails, as there is already a road for foot and horse traffic on the property.  

The boundary fence will be replaced with wildlife-friendly fence where needed, and the interior fence will be removed for the benefit of both people and wildlife. There will also be a smaller gate installed to allow visitors and horses to access the south part of the property from the new parking area, while preventing any motorized vehicle access.

She said the foremost purpose of WMAs is to offer habitat to wildlife.

Marchion, a 2014 inductee to the Montana Outdoor Hall of Fame, promoted Warm Springs Creek as a good fishery and said the right kind of fishermen would enjoy the new access. But he’s lost interest in the sport in recent years. For the perspective of a life-long Anaconda fisherman with a fine appreciation of holes both public and private on Warm Springs Creek, Marchion recommended Leo Jense.

Jense first threw a line in Warm Springs Creek when he was seven years old. He’s 83 now. By entering at public accesses and wading, he’s fished what’s now the Stumptown Addition over the years, and he’s seldom seen another fisherman on it. It wasn’t easy to get to, but that was only half the battle: It’s no easy thing to hang on to bushes and drift a fly at once, he said.

Though Montana calls everywhere below the high-water mark public, a fisherman knows wading a powerful stream from the nearest public access is not always easy.

As is the case in many streams, brown trout have made their mark on his favorite fishery. Over the years, he’s caught rainbows, brooks and native westslope cutthroats, and remembers the days when even the endangered bull trout were plentiful, though they are still present now.

He even laid into a monster rainbow on the creek not long ago, he said.

Jense doesn’t regret that one of his favorite fishing spots stands to see a few more fishermen now. He doesn’t regret being able to walk right up to the bank, either.    

“I think it's a real good thing, you know. Anything where we can gain more access or easier access is a plus for the general public — and not the super-rich who can block it off," he said. "It's good fishing and I enjoyed it. I'll enjoy it a little more now that I can fish it easier."

Jense and Marchion are of the same mind when it comes to nature — it’s a place some young people have lost touch with. Public lands, to them, are about the days when they were kids, and life was all about fishing and being outside.

“They’ve got to get out and do something and develop an imagination, you know, love for the outdoors and fishing. I used to get out of school and change my school clothes — we had to do that in them days — and run over to the crick with a rod,” Jense said. “It seems like once you’re out fishing you’re not even thinking. You just think about hooking a fish and having a good time.”

The Stumptown Addition wasn’t Marchion’s first rodeo, and it may not be his last. Driving down Stumptown Road, he stopped his truck to point at the hills to the south, where the ridge under Mount Haggin drops to a canyon below. That’s the remaining hole in the patchwork of public land, in the middle of the Garrity Mountain WMA. 

“That's the piece we still need to get,” Marchion said. “Then we can complete the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness. It's the same mountain range. It's the same land character. It should all be in the wilderness.”

To accommodate community recreation, the 100-acre section of the Stumptown Addition on Warm Springs Creek, to the north of Stumptown Road, is open to the public year-round and is open to hunting during the season with archery equipment only.

The rest of the Garrity Mountain WMA is closed annually from Dec. 1 to May 15 to protect wildlife habitat.


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