It's been a long, complex process, but the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced Friday that the first nine of 391 cabin sites in the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge have been sold to lessees.

The sales are so difficult because the lots are on federal land that surrounds the Fort Peck Reservoir. The procedure for turning the lands over to cabin owners was made possible through the 2000 Water Resource Development Act.

“There were certain guidelines specified in the law that we had to meet,” said Julie Price, the Corps Fort Peck cabins project manager.

Appraisals of the land were made, then the Corps had to ensure that the home sites met state sanitation and septic standards.

The Corps is offering the sites in large blocks — 40 to 50 at a time — but the individual lessees have until December 2012 to purchase the land.

If they choose not to buy the land, any structures will have to be removed and the land may be put up for auction or leased.

“We're hoping they all sell,” Price said.

The nine lots are in Fort Peck, averaging about a half-acre to one acre, and sold for a total of $193,000, or an average of $21,400 each. The lots that are sold are removed from federal ownership and added to the local tax rolls.

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Proceeds from the sales, after costs of appraisals and other work are taken out, will go to the Montana Fish and Wildlife Conservation Trust for use in acquiring other lands with with greater wildlife and other public resource value in or adjacent to the CMR Wildlife Refuge.

The 1.1-million-acre refuge was established in 1936. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers acquired jurisdiction over some lands within CMR during the construction of the Fort Peck Dam. In the 1960s, the Corps began leasing land at the eastern end of the Fort Peck lake for cabin sites.

The residences range from small one-room cabins to large year-round residences and are located in four areas — Fort Peck, the Pines, Hell Creek and Rock Creek.

“This has been a complex divestiture process that ultimately will benefit the refuge and the residents of Eastern Montana,” Price said. “We recognize that these lots are people's homes, and their patience and cooperation are appreciated.”

The process is similar to one that allowed 265 cabin owners at Canyon Ferry to bid on federal land the residences occupy.

The Bureau of Reclamation leased those lands to cabin owners. The legislation guiding those sales specified that a trust fund be established with proceeds of the property sales to benefit Montana sportsmen, outdoor recreationists and wildlife. To date, the trust has distributed $1.7 million to 17 different conservation projects across the state.

Contact Brett French, Gazette Outdoors editor, at french@billingsgazette.com or at 657-1387.

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Contact Brett French, Gazette Outdoors editor, at french@billingsgazette.com or at 657-1387.