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Historic Fort Owen Ranch near Stevensville changes hands

Dale Burk, at left, introduced Myla Yahraus, new owner of the historic Fort Owen Ranch, and her ranch manager Kent Smartt, at a press conference last Thursday at the Stevensville Hotel. The ranch property surrounds the tiny Fort Owen State Park and also contains a popular river access site, both of which in the past have created problems for the property owners, the public, and local enforcement officers but which many in the community hope can now be solved. Michael Howell photo.

By Michael Howell

If the beginning of the Fort Owen Ranch is counted from the time that Major John Owen bought the old Mission site for $250 back in the 1850s and brought the first domesticated cattle into Montana, then it is older than the Town of Stevensville. When Owen renamed the place after himself and built up his and wife Nancy’s business at the trading post they were inviting a town to grow up around them. And it did. The history of both have been inextricably intertwined ever since.

Not surprisingly, like a lot of close relationships, things have not always gone well between the two. Over the last few years the relationship has been strained over a number of issues involving lawsuits and threats of lawsuits between the ranch owners and the Town of Stevensville over easement restrictions to the wastewater treatment plant, encroachment of the swimming pool onto ranch property, and the closure of the traditional public access site on ranchland at the Stevensville bridge. In addition, relations with the State of Montana have been strained over trespassing, trash and parking issues related to the small, one acre, Fort Owen State Park located in the middle of the ranchland immediately adjacent to the ranch residence.

Stevensville resident, publisher and author, journalist and avid historian, Dale Burk, who has been a strong voice in all these issues, decided it was a matter of important public interest that the nature of these disputes was about to change abruptly since the ownership of the property has recently changed hands.

As a result, he arranged for a press conference at the historic Stevensville Hotel last Thursday to introduce the new ranch owner to the community and suggest that she brings with her the opportunity to resolve these longstanding and serious issues as a new partner.

The new owner is Myla Yahraus, MGL Ranching LLC. The escrow on the property closed in early November, but the sellers, Roy and Lori Capp, are still occupying the ranch until the end of the year. Yahraus said she is well aware of all the issues that have been swirling around the property these last few years. But she believes she can deal with them.

“After looking at a few properties in the Bitterroot valley, I chose the Fort Owen Ranch because of its amenities and its location within the valley,” Yahraus told members of the press, citizens and government officials in the packed hotel lobby. “More importantly, I chose it because I have family from here and the ranch seemed to provide a peaceful refuge for my soul.”

Since the Capps will be removing their cattle and relocating their equipment, she said, the first goal would be to re-stock the cattle and replace the equipment necessary to continue as a working cattle ranch and farm.

“I want to acknowledge the fact that, despite the controversies, the Capps have been good stewards of the Fort Owen Ranch during their stay. The riverfront is in pristine condition, the Burnt Fork Creek is clean and clear, and the pasture is healthy,” she said.

Yahraus, who owns a business in Las Vegas, providing electricity and power to conventions and trade fairs, is placing management of the ranch into the hands of Stevensville High School graduate Kent Smartt.

During high school Smartt was involved in the Future Farmers of America program. After graduating he worked on Fort Owen Ranch for a while and worked on other ranches before going to work for Yahraus in Las Vegas for the last three years.

“I’m glad to be back,” said Smartt. He said his FFA experience helped prepare him for this kind of work and gave him a real love for agriculture and he was looking forward to the job. He will also act as liaison for the ranch on other activities.

Yahraus said she will keep the Fort Owen name and the brand and continue the same sort of cattle operation.

She acknowledged all the issues that were pending, and said, “I know that Fort Owen Ranch has tremendous significance to the Bitterroot valley and to all Montana. I am aware of its close proximity to the historic Fort Owen State Park, and its lack of accessibility and adequate parking. I am also aware that a portion of the ranch has been used as a long-time public access point on the Bitterroot River, but is no longer accessible. I know that both of these uses by the public have been a constant source of dissention between the ranch’s previous owners and the community over the past few years.”

Yahraus said that she wanted to make clear first that she is a strong advocate of private property rights and believes those rights should be respected.

“I believe that everything we have is ‘on loan’ from God, to be used, but not abused,” said Yahraus. “We all bear the responsibility of making sure that ‘His stuff’ is respected and cared for, whether public or private.”

Yahraus noted that there were obvious parking issues that need to be addressed from a tourism standpoint, but there are also trespassing issues that need to be resolved from a private property standpoint. She said if the best location to launch water craft is from the river frontage that is owned by the ranch, there needs to be proper development of the site in order to protect the integrity of the property.

Yahraus has already met with officials from FWP and will be working with them to renew access in the short term, as well as long-term solutions that will benefit all parties. She is also working with state park officials concerning the Fort Owen park issues. For both issues, she said, any resolution must include ongoing maintenance programs.

“In regard to the Town of Stevensville,” said Yahraus, “as a small business owner in Las Vegas, I know how important tourism is to the livelihood of local communities, especially small ones like here in the Bitterroot valley. For that reason it is important to create successful public/private partnerships. I am more than willing to be a good neighbor to the Stevensville community, but the healthiest neighborhoods have streets that run both directions, not one-way streets that lead to a dead end.”

West Central Regional Park Manager Chet Crowser, who attended last week’s press conference, said that his communications with Yahraus was opening up a whole new conversation and that the conversation brings a new atmosphere to the talks.

“Like any relationship, it will develop in time,” said Crowser, “but we are certainly off on the right foot.” He said what is going on speaks volumes about the community’s interest in the issues and their willingness to look for long-term solutions for Fort Owen State Park.

In fact, a Friends of Fort Owen group has been meeting over the last year and is in the process of adopting a more formal structure. According to spokesperson Desera Towle, the group is looking forward to opening a dialog with the new owner and her representatives regarding the historic site.

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