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Plan in the works to restore fishing access at Stevi bridge

On Monday, a friend of the previous landowner was removing the concrete barriers that were placed there to block access to the river near the Stevensville Bridge. Michael Howell photo.

By Michael Howell

According to Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks Region 2 Supervisor Randy Arnold, serious talks have been initiated with Myla Yahraus, the new owner of Fort Owen Ranch, that could lead to the re-opening of the historical fishing access on ranch land right next to the bridge prior to the upcoming fishing season.

“We are trying to finalize an agreement for an official footprint before spring,” said Arnold. He said it would not be a permanent long-term solution and probably would not involve much development other than making sure the concrete barriers placed along the bank by the previous landowner were removed, and as of Monday afternoon, the barriers were being removed. He said it would look pretty much like what was there historically before the concrete barriers were set up.

The longterm aim is for FWP to purchase some land and make some subsequent permanent improvements, but that will take quite a bit of time to move any proposal through the public process. In the short term, the agency is looking at a Private Lands Access Agreement, in which the agency leases a piece of land for some purpose like a fishing access site. This intermediate solution could allow public access to the river by this coming season as potential purchase and development proposals work their way through the system.

“This is something that we want to get thoroughly reviewed by the public,” said Arnold. “It will take some time to do that right.”

Arnold was able to attend a meeting in Stevensville last week with members of Friends of Fort Owen, a non-profit group dedicated to the preservation and enhancement of Fort Owen State Park which is surrounded by the private ranch. Also attending the meeting were Division of State Parks Administrator Beth Shumate, along with State Parks and Recreation Board Chair Angie Grove and Regional Manager Chet Crowser.

The State Parks officials were in the area visiting a few land parcels being considered for purchase by the state east of Missoula. Crowser said as long as they were in the area, he wanted to show them Travelers’ Rest, the location of another potential parcel purchase, and Fort Owen State Park, where discussions are underway with the new owner of the ranch to address issues concerning the park.

While establishing an initial footprint for public fishing access is on the fast track to get something finalized before spring, everyone recognizes that the solutions to the issues clumped around the Fort Owen State Park are on a slow path, in comparison. But, however slowly, the movement is there, amongst all the interested parties at this point to work out some positive resolution for some of the access issues at the park and minimize conflicts between the public and the ranch, according to Crowser.

Margaret Gorski, a member of Friends of Fort Owen, said that her group recognizes that the new owner and manager of the ranch need some time to get moved in and get the ranch up and running but she is sure that, in the long run, some reasonable adjustments could be made to minimize the conflict between the public accessing the state park and the resident ranching operation.

“We’ve had some initial conversations that were very encouraging,” said Gorski, “but nothing yet in earnest. It will take some time. We want to hear what they are thinking. We want to work with the landowner for a win/win solution that could work for everybody. We are interested in building a relationship.”

Anyone interested in participating in the new group or serving on the board should contact Ruth Baker at 777-3201 for more information.

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