Alberton Gorge Lands Transferred to Public Ownership
Finally, after more than a decade of effort the 306 acres of former Montana Power Company lands adjacent to the Alberton Gorge on Montana’s Clark Fork River are being transferred into public ownership. These lands form a corridor along the popular Class III whitewater reach west of Missoula on I-90 attracting approximately 25,000 boaters per year. Transferring these lands to public ownership ensures public access to this reach of river in perpetuity as well as protects the scenic backdrop in this river corridor. Ironically, most paddlers who will benefit directly from this public access are unaware this effort to protect lands along the Alberton Gorge corridor was even underway.
Transferring the 306 acres now owned by Montana Power Company’s successor, NorthWestern Energy was the result of years of effort and negotiations spawned by local whitewater enthusiasts and representatives of Montana Power, Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, and River Network, a national conservation group. . Peter Dayton, a local Missoula boater, has been instrumental getting this concept for a land exchange on American Whitewater’s agenda and the radar of other river conservation organizations.
In October 1998, River Network’s then president Phil Wallin contacted American Whitewater requesting financial assistance with a land acquisition on Montana’s Clark Fork River. “We were in a pinch, because we had to come up with serious money to buy some time to put a land exchange together,” Wallin said. “So we turned to the people who knew the river best – the private boaters and the organization that serves them, American Whitewater.” With the help of the Kenney foundation, American Whitewater kicked in $15,000. River Network obtained another $35,000 from the Conservation Alliance. This combined $50,000 secured a five-year option to purchase Montana Power’s 306 acres adjacent to the Clark Fork River in Alberton Gorge.
This transaction was anything but simple: The property, now valued at $1.4 million, lies at the heart of a land transaction between the Lolo National Forest, Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks, and Montana Power Company. The land swap and sale ensures that the State of Montana will protect eight miles of undeveloped river front property for the dual purposes of public enjoyment and resource protection. Many elements of this transaction have changed dramatically since its original conception. For example, Montana Power was purchased by Northwestern Energy. Subsequently, Northwestern Energy filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy. Assets such as the 306 acres in Alberton Gorge have been locked up with the Bankruptcy judge trying to satisfy Northwestern creditors and allow Northwestern to emerge from bankruptcy.
In 2003, due to organizational changes, River Network transferred responsibility for completing this transaction over to Five Valleys Land Trust in Missoula. Five Valleys will assure that funding is in place to complete the purchase of the Gorge lands, then turn the property over to Montana Fish Wildife and Parks. Five Valleys is assuming the financial risk to get the land exchange done. Five Valleys will seek to pay off the remaining debt with proceeds of land sales from a second exchange process with Montana Dept. of Natural Resources.
American Whitewater is highly appreciative of Peter Dayton’s vision and decade of effort as well as Greg Tollefson’s willingness to take this project on for Five Valleys Land Trust. American Whitewater also appreciates the vision and commitment for river corridor land protection exhibited by River Network, Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks, Lolo National Forest, Montana Power Company and Northwestern Energy. Thank you for creating a legacy on Alberton Gorge!
Visit the Missoulian for a full article describing the details of the Alberton Gorge protection effort.
American Whitewater accepts tax-deductible donations to support other land acquisition projects and river conservation efforts.