BLM OKs Missouri Breaks land purchase

2012-05-05T00:00:00Z 2012-05-05T11:50:08Z BLM OKs Missouri Breaks land purchaseBRETT FRENCH french@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

The 375,000-acre Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument will grow by 652 acres when a land purchase in Fergus County is finalized later this year.

The Brink family has sold its land just west of Judith Landing to The Conservation Fund. The group is holding the property until the Bureau of Land Management, which oversees the monument, can write a check. The money would come from the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

"It's been for sale for some time," said Gates Watson of The Conservation Fund. "We started talking with the BLM and Brink family last year."

After failing to interest an adjacent landowner in purchasing the property, the Brink family's real estate agent approached the BLM in May 2011. The BLM said it does not go out looking to buy inholdings in the monument.

The BLM conducted an environmental assessment before concluding there would be no significant impact to purchasing the property. Monument manager Gary Slagel signed off on the decision on May 1. According to Watson, the purchase price will be $425,000, or about $652 an acre.

There are no outbuildings on the property, which was homesteaded by Nellie (Brink) Whitcraft in 1925. The property is surrounded by state and federal land between Arrow Creek and the Judith River, with a small portion actual river frontage. There is no public road access to the parcel.

In addition to being within the monument boundaries, the property is along the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail and the Nez Perce National Historic Trail.

Although some people denounced the purchase in commenting on the EA -- citing unnecessary government acquisition of land, a high appraisal and supposed tax losses -- the group Friends of the Missouri River Breaks supported the deal.

"The public right to access is now protected," said Hugo Tureck, a Friends board member.

Tureck pointed out that the county will actually make more than four times as much in taxes with the government as landowners and ranchers can still graze the property, probably at a cheaper price.

The BLM justified the acquisition by saying that the land "could enhance public recreation opportunities within the Missouri River corridor, maintain or improve important wildlife habitat, consolidate public ownership and reduce the management complications common with scattered landownership patterns."

In its environmental assessment, the BLM wrote that "adjacent public land receives substantial recreation use, especially by outfitters, probably because it is easily accessible from the river and is secluded, shady and close to the boat launch at Judith Landing. The adjacent state of Montana land has a frequently used undeveloped camp site referred to as Flat Rock (or the Wagon Bed)."

The land is located at river mile 79.8 through 80.1 in the White Cliffs section of the Missouri River Breaks that is classified as wild, and therefore "represent vestiges of Primitive America." The wildness of the river is its attraction to the 36,000 visitors who boated through the monument between 2004-2010.

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