If there is one single project in the Rocky Mountain West that achieves every possible goal of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, it must be the acquisition of lands that guarantee access to and consolidate the management and protection of the Tenderfoot Creek drainage in the Little Belt Mountains of central Montana.
Tenderfoot Creek is a broad torrent of crystal clear cold water born of a wide arterial system of high mountain streams, falling 3250 feet in elevation from its snowmelt headwaters to lush open grasslands and shadowed forests of pine and fir. It is the perfect home for the elsewhere-imperiled and shockingly beautiful Westslope cutthroat trout, and it is one of the primary spawning tributaries for rainbow and brown trout in Montana’s famous Smith River, one of Montana’s most coveted and iconic recreational float and fishing trips. (The Smith encompasses a Blue Ribbon trout fishery so popular that it is the only Montana river that requires a permit to float and camp). The Smith also provides crucial irrigation water to farms and ranches in its lower reaches. Tenderfoot Creek and the Smith River are linchpins of central Montana’s recreational and agricultural economies.
The entire Tenderfoot watershed is also home to black bear, moose, elk, wolves and other wildlife. It is extremely popular with hikers and explorers, hunters and anglers.
Although most of the Tenderfoot was protected on public lands in the Lewis and Clark National Forest, 8220 acres around and within it were in private ownership and subject to sale and development, or increased logging, all of which would have meant roadbuilding and erosion and sedimentation in what was one of the most ecologically diverse and intact watersheds in Montana. Deer and elk would lose crucial low elevation winter range to development. Management of public lands would become impossible. Even more troublesome, the private landholdings also blocked public access – a single gate on private land could, and did, block off thousands of acres of national forest lands, with some of the best public fishing and hunting in Montana suddenly off-limits.
With $10.1 million from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and other conservation groups acquired the most critical private holdings and transferred them to the Lewis and Clark National Forest, ensuring both long term protection of the watershed and public access for hunting, fishing, hiking and camping.
“From fishing access sites, to trails, to playgrounds, to smart investments like the Tenderfoot, the LWCF is a win-win for Montana,” said Montana Gov. Steve Bullock. “The Tenderfoot is an exceptional example of how Montanans can work together to protect our public lands for future generations.”
Montana Board Member Steve Platt on Tenderfoot Creek, credit Alicia Stickney