- Associated Press - Saturday, June 20, 2015

SHELBY, Mont. (AP) - The Marias River snakes through a river valley surrounded by farm and ranch land.

In spots, it cuts through canyons. Hoodoos rise from the cliffs above it and ancient cottonwood trees line its banks.

The Upper Marias River is easy to see from Interstate 15 just south of Shelby, but the undammed section of the Marias River upstream of Tiber Dam flows through the prairie, mostly hidden from view.

Access to the river by vehicle is only available in a couple spots, and it was important to the Montana Chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers that it stay that way.

When Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks proposed a road through the Marias River Wildlife Management Area, BHA opposed the proposal and worked hard to make sure that road didn’t become a reality.

Last weekend, the group floated the river to celebrate its victory after the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission voted down the road proposal.

They spent two days on the Marias River, floating about 30 miles from Sullivan Bridge north of Valier to Williamson Park south of Shelby.

During those two days, they saw no one outside their party, and no cars or roads until they reached I-15.

“That experience is so rare and so special,” said Bill Cunningham of Choteau, a member of BHA.

The 5,845-acre Marias River Wildlife Management Area can be accessed by vehicle on its west side. A parking lot is perched on a bluff above the river. From there, people can hike about a half mile to the Marias or anywhere else in the WMA. Otherwise, there is no vehicle access.

“All of it’s accessible by boat,” Cunningham said.

Thirteen miles of the Marias River flows through the Wildlife Management Area.

When FWP bought the land, officials thought an existing road on the east side of the WMA would provide river access. However, an adjacent landowner disputed that the road was not public.

The landowner and FWP went through a mediation process, and FWP proposed transferring approximately 483 acres of the WMA to the landowner in exchange for public recreational access on Lincoln Road.

Backcountry Hunters and Anglers opposed the proposal, arguing that vehicle access to the river would degrade the experience the Marias River WMA offers.

“The public was getting nothing out of it except a reduction of this wonderful place,” Cunningham said.

Other sportsmen’s groups also opposed it, including the Russell Country Sportsmen Association, arguing that buying land and then giving a portion of it away wasn’t a responsible use of sportsmen’s dollars.

In November, the Fish and Wildlife Commission voted down the road proposal, leaving the Wildlife Management Area without vehicle access to the river.

Working in the world of conservation, victories are rare, said Greg Munther, chairman of the Montana Chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, and conservation groups rarely take time to celebrate those victories.

“We’re on to the next battle as soon as we’re done with the last one,” he said.

Gunther, however, wanted to take the time to enjoy the victory, so he organized a celebratory float on the Marias River.

On Friday, a small group of BHA members gathered near Sullivan Bridge to begin the celebration.

Saturday morning saw a car shuttle, followed by two rafts, four kayaks, a pack raft and a canoe setting out on the river.

The Marias River provides an easy two-date float.

“It’s an opportunity that many, many people can enjoy,” Munther said. “It’s not only for the expert.”

The Marias River is void of any technical whitewater. It’s an easy float, even for someone with minimal experience.

Saturday night, the group camped inside the WMA boundaries, near where the parking lot and campground would have been constructed if the road proposal had been approved.

Munther imagined tubers in the river and a developed campground full of RVs and trailers if that decision had gone the other way. Likely there would be trash, fire rings and parties.

Instead, Munther, seated in a campchair, was surrounded by cottonwoods. Not a single man-made structure was visible from his campsite. The river’s current was easy to hear in the quiet of evening.

“It would just change the nature of it,” Munther said of the road that won’t come to be.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks purchased the 5,485-acre Wildlife Management Area in 2008. A 1,878-acre state park sits next to it.

The land was previously owned by Charlie Lincoln and known as the Lincoln Ranch. When Lincoln died, he left his ranch to the Catholic Diocese of Montana with instructions to give FWP the first right of refusal if the diocese decided to sell the land.

FWP paid $2 million for the state park portion of the land, funded through a onetime appropriation from the 2007 Legislature, and $5.6 million for the WMA portion thanks to Habitat Montana funding.

Lincoln wanted it to be a public use area that was managed for the benefit of wildlife, Cunningham said.

“Charlie was sort of an eccentric bachelor,” he said.

Many young hunters from the Shelby area remember hunting on his ranch.

“His policy was, if you’re a youth hunter, he would let you in,” Cunningham said.

The Wildlife Management Area is open to hunting but is limited to 10 deer hunters per week.

“The hunting is managed for a quality experience,” Munther said.

Hunters who are lucky enough to draw a permit can float in or hike in. Those are the kind of experiences Backcountry Hunters and Anglers works to protect, he said

___

The original story can be found on the Great Falls Tribune’s website: http://gftrib.com/1dGPIje

___

Information from: Great Falls Tribune, http://www.greatfallstribune.com

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide