Anglers, bird watchers and dog walkers will eventually have a new place to ramble under a proposal to purchase private land that borders the Yellowstone and Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone rivers and then donate it to the Bureau of Land Management.
As part of the settlement over the 2011 ExxonMobil Pipeline Co. spill into the Yellowstone River, the 25 acres located about a mile-and-a-half downstream from Laurel would be purchased by the Montana Natural Resource Damage Program for $215,000 from College Park LLP, owners of the land. The state agency would then turn the property over to the BLM for management.
“We’ve been working with the BLM on this for quite a few months,” said Alicia Stickney of the Montana Natural Resource Damage Program. “The property owner offered it to us for sale.”
Although now owned by a limited liability partnership, the land was previously held by Tom and Priscilla Korb. They acquired the property in a foreclosure when a business proposition went south. They then attempted to operate a campground and party venue in western-styled buildings on the property.
“There weren’t any outside venue sites then,” Tom said.
That project was shot down by a judge in 2006 who ruled that the buildings must be torn down as the development was done without proper county permits, although a county employee had initially authorized the work.
County commissioners said the buildings had to go because they could be washed into the Yellowstone River at high water, swept downstream and damage the Duck Creek Bridge. The possibility of such an incident put the county’s flood insurance at risk.
The Korbs ended up selling the businesses for a dollar just to get them removed and around 2006 found a buyer for the property.
A broker for the current owners, College Park LLP, contacted the state back in 2016 when it began seeking projects to compensate for the 2011 oil spill along the Yellowstone River. An appraisal was completed in December.
“Every single time I’ve stopped there someone has been there,” Stickney said. “It gets used,” even though it’s still private property.
About a half-mile of shoreline on the Yellowstone River and .2 miles of shoreline on the Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone would become more easily accessible under the acquisition.
“It’s a wonderful location,” Stickney said. “It’s great access for fishing.”
The BLM already owns 380 acres just across Thiel Road, which divides the properties. That land is known as the Sundance Lodge Recreation Area. The new property would be managed together with Sundance Lodge, which is already administered to provide public access, wildlife habitat, dispersed recreation, and to protect historic, cultural and scenic values.
“The fact that it’s adjacent to an existing recreation area makes it an area that would enhance the public opportunities at that site,” said Al Nash, BLM spokesman. “That makes it a good fit for us.”
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He did not know how soon the newly acquired land may be accessible to the public. The environmental assessment has to be finalized and the BLM has to sign off on the deal before the land is officially transferred. Stickney is hoping that all takes place by this fall.
“I have to say it’s been harder to spend money on the Yellowstone River than I thought it would be,” she said.
Legal requirements the land transfer had to meet so the property could go to the BLM complicated the process, she said. The land purchase is just one of several projects the Montana Natural Resource Damage Program is funding following a financial settlement over the 2011 oil spill. Downstream on the Yellowstone River a recently built fishing access site and boat ramp at Blue Creek Bridge, across from Riverfront Park, was part of the same settlement.
According to the BLM’s environmental assessment, following acquisition of the new property the agency plans to construct a half-mile walking trail and reclaim approximately one mile of existing two track roads and convert them to foot paths.
“There are roads all over it,” Stickney said.
Trailhead facilities would include a parking area, information kiosk, perimeter fencing or barricades, a vault toilet, and parking bumper stops. The parking area would accommodate about five to eight cars and would be built in a disturbed area that was previously used as a parking area for the private events center.
The BLM also has plans to eventually remove invasive Russian olive trees and treat noxious weeds on the 25 acres.
“Acquisition of this property has been a long-term goal of the BLM,” according to the EA. “Members of the public currently trespass on the property, and this acquisition will legitimize public access and prevent public loss of the property for access to both rivers.
“The BLM staff have received preliminary approval for this acquisition from their real estate experts and the State Director.”
The agency also said, “It’s worth noting that Sundance and the College Park property are on both the Lewis and Clark and Nez Perce National Historic Trails.”
After struggling to get a business going at the site, Tom Korb is happy to see the land transferred to the public.
“That’s a good use for it,” he said.
Stickney agreed. “It’s a really great property right there on the river.”
For more information, the EA and finding of no significant impact can be found online.
Written comments are being taken through Aug. 8 and can be submitted through the BLM’s eplanning site at the above link, by email to BLM_MT_Billings_FO@blm.gov, with “College Park Acquisition and Donation” in the subject line, or via mail to U.S. BLM Billings Field Office, 5001 Southgate Drive, Billings, MT 59101, Attn: David Lefevre.
For more information, contact BLM Field Manager David Lefevre at 896-5013.