A group working to ensure public access to the Jefferson River in a spot 10 miles south of Whitehall is in its last stretch of fundraising before a July 31 deadline.

Members of the Jefferson River Canoe Trail, a local chapter of the Lewis & Clark Trail Heritage Foundation, have been working since January to secure money for the new public campsite, temporarily named Waterloo Grove. President Thomas Elpel said Thursday that they had about $6,000 left to raise in order to meet their $270,000 goal.

Currently a private property with limited public access, the 30.5-acre site will be “the only substantial piece of riparian public land on the upper Jefferson River where people can walk their dog, go bird watching, or hunt for morel mushrooms,” according to a press release from the organization. The details of management of the parcel will be hashed out with local stakeholders, Elpel said, but the plan is to build campsites along the length of the river.

“There’s a lot of support,” Elpel said. “It’s really the perfect site for a walk-in fishing access site and a paddler’s campsite.”

Much of the Lewis and Clark trail winds through land that has since been developed, altering the landscape that the explorers encountered on their travels, but this part of the river “actually has retained a lot of the authentic character of the wilderness from when Lewis and Clark came through,” said Elpel. Seeing the land up close makes the history of the region less abstract for visitors.

“It kind of brings the story alive a little bit more,” Elpel said. “By acquiring the property, we’re hoping to preserve the viewshed. Because otherwise, it would turn into McMansions.”

The name “Waterloo Grove” is temporary, Elpel said. The group plans to invite students from nearby Whitehall to rename the site based on the journals of Lewis and Clark. Elpel expects signs to be up around the parcel in the fall.

Elpel said that a grant from the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Trust that’s partially funding the purchase included a stipulation that would ensure public access through the site. That grant, for $195,000, joins a grant from Barrick Gold Corporation for $10,000, the Cinnabar Foundation for $6,500, and NorthWestern Energy for $500 in contributing to the site’s price tag. The Jefferson River Canoe Trail had $9,000 in the bank that’s going toward the cost, according to Elpel, and raised the remaining funds through mail and online campaigns.

“We have a very long list of donors that’s growing longer every day,” Elpel said.

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