The Battle for Beaver Chew
Land Swap Proposal Threatens Public Campsite on the Jefferson River Canoe Trail
Public land is scarce along the Jefferson, so our organization, the Jefferson River Canoe Trail, is working hard to secure land for public campsites along the entire river. We are one of thirty chapters of the national nonprofit Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation.
We are especially proud to have acquired a beautiful 4.3-acre property on the lower Jefferson near Three Forks for a public campsite with walk-in fishing access, named Shoshone Landing. So imagine our dismay to learn that a rich out-of-state landowner is attempting to gain control over an existing campsite on 80 acres of state land at the opposite end of the river near Twin Bridges.
The campsite is known as Beaver Chew because Meriwether Lewis left a note for William Clark at the confluence of the Big Hole and Beaverhead rivers, but a beaver cut it down, and Clark led the canoes up the wrong fork, leading to a near fatal accident for Joseph Whitehouse, as Lewis noted in his journal, "The canoe had rubed him and pressed him to the bottom as she passed over him and had the water been 2 inches shallower must inevitably have crushed him to death. Our parched meal, corn, Indian preasents, and a great part of our most valuable stores were wet and much damaged on this ocasion."
The expedition backtracked and camped at the confluence to dry their gear. The state land is just downstream from the confluence. It serves as a campsite for floaters coming down either river, and it is on the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail.
New York billionaire Hamilton E. "Tony" James, owner of Swift River Investments (a.k.a. "SRI River Holdings"), is pushing to close a deal with the state land board to take the property in exchange for land on the Big Hole, solidifying his hold on prime Jefferson River waterfront property. But there isn't enough public land on the Jefferson as it is, and we can't just move the Lewis and Clark Trail.
Our organization would prefer to dedicate time and attention towards increasing public access along the Jefferson River, yet we are now drawn into battle to save what little land we already have, and we need your help. You can make a difference, big or small, it all helps the cause. Any one or more of the following actions will help support the cause.
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Land Swap Details | False Gift | Money and Politics
New Proposal | Preferred Alternative | Compromise Alternative | Talking Points
Details of the Land Swap Proposal
The land swap proposed by Tony James / SRI River Holdings is half good and half disastrous. The upland trade would exchange 528 acres of flat, dry state land for 750 acres of nicer SRI land in the Highland Mountains, with good wildlife and recreation potential. At present, Tony James' vacation home is near the state land, so the trade would give him more space, privacy, and protection from hunting, while giving the public better hunting opportunities in the Highlands. This upland portion of the trade is supported by SRI River Holdings, the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC), hunters and sportsmen groups, and ourselves, the Jefferson River Canoe Trail.
The other part of the trade is the problem. SRI wants 80 acres of Jefferson River waterfront that serves as a public floater campsite on the Jefferson River Canoe Trail. In exchange, they would give the state 111 acres of land on the nearby Big Hole River. (By law, these trades must result in equal or greater value to the state of Montana.) On the surface, it seems like a win in terms of acreage, but at the cost of losing a critical parcel on the Jefferson River.
Public lands are scarce along the Jefferson River, and no other site offers such a rich and lush riparian ecosystem with extensive cottonwood woodlands, open meadows, and abundant wildlife. The trade with SRI would permanently eliminate an essential site on this segment of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail, blocking public access where there isn't enough access already.
Land trades are theoretically supposed to be non-controversial, win-win agreements that are widely supported by the public. This land trade proposal was apparently in the works for a couple years before anyone bothered to contact the Jefferson River Canoe Trail. The trade proposal was fleshed out and essentially agreed upon between the landowner, DNRC, and upland sportsmen groups before we heard anything about it.
Sportsmens' groups are most interested in the upland portion of the trade, and it would be ideal to drop the riverfront portion of the proposal out of the package. However, the landowner is determined to block public access to the ranch along the waterfront.
As part of the effort to drive away the public, SRI River Holdings erected a "Private Property - No Trespassing" sign on the Jefferson River on the upstream border of the state land to imply and confuse recreationists into believing that land downstream from the sign (Beaver Chew) belongs to the ranch. SRI also mowed a path on the state land along the riverfront to further enhance the illusion that Beaver Chew is their private land. These actions confuse and intimidate visitors. Uncertain of the status of the land, they are more likely to stay on the river and bypass Beaver Chew altogether.
The state of Montana needs to take action, first to remove Beaver Chew from the land exchange propsoal, and then to halt the landowner's actions to confuse and intimidate the public. Optionally, the billinoaire needs to come to the negotiating table to find a reasonable alternative to the campsite at Beaver Chew for the people of Montana.
To try and make the deal more palatable, the billionaire landowner offered to give the Jefferson River Canoe Trail a 4-acre campsite on the downstream edge of his ranch in exchange for our support for trading away the 80-acre campsite we already have. That is arguably a reasonable offer on top of the other land that would go to the state.
Willing to consider the offer, members of our group paddled down the river to tour the proposed 4-acre campsite. Unfortunately, it was highly inhospitable, mostly rock and cactus. We hunkered down in some broken willows and cow crap for a picnic, and everyone was ready to leave immediately afterwards. If it became a campsite, it is unlikely that many people would choose to camp there.
Prior to touring the site, we suggested expanding the parcel from 4 to 21 acres, along with a corner crossing easement to access BLM land. Expanding the campsite to connect with BLM land would provide floaters and campers something to do besides twiddle their thumbs and wait to leave. They would have access to hundreds of acres of hiking on public lands in the hills, consistent with other campsites on the Canoe Trail. However, SRI was opposed to providing public access to public lands behind the ranch and rejected the idea.
In addition, a geologist pointed out that the trajectory of the river is eroding the 4-acre parcel, and it won't be there for long. It is reasonable to expect that the river will shift all the way to the bottom of the hill, eliminating the campsite and returning the riverfront to the ranch.
We politely declined the offer of a 4-acre campsite, and that should have been the end of it, but SRI River Holdings advanced the proposal to the Montana State Land Board anyway, attempting to force the gift upon us as part of the proposal to make it sound like a reasonable offer.
Money and Politics
SRI River Holdings is a 38,000-acre ranch purchased by Tony James for his personal recreational fiefdom. Like many other billionaires that have bought land in Montana, James is not entirely a bad person. He is a conservationist, a trustee of the Wildlife Conservation Society and several similar organizations, and an advisory board member of the Montana Land Reliance, an organization working to protect land with conservation easements. But like other billionaires that come to Montana to recreate, James chose to post No Trespassing signs and block traditional public access to private lands, and he isn't a big fan of public access even where the public has a legal right.
One issue in dealing with wealthy people is that they often walk all over other people to get what they want. Unfortunately, Tony James wants our campsite, and we are in his way. Coincidentally, Tony James has deep ties to the Democratic Party and once hosted a fundraiser in his home for President Obama. He also has ties to Montana Democrats, including Governor Steve Bullock.
We were misled into believing that public input mattered. However, when we objected to the proposal, SRI River Holdings and the DNRC decided to run us over and advance it to the Land Board for consideration anyway on December 21, 2015. Our group wasn't even invited to the meeting, although we were fortunate to learn about it through back channels.
Members of the Canoe Trail mounted a serious last minute campaign and spoke eloquently at the hearing, successfully turning two votes against the land swap proposal. Despite the controversial nature of the land swap proposal, Governor Bullock and two other members of the Montana Land Board voted in favor of pushing the land trade forward to the next step in the evaluation process!
Fortunately, the vote didn't finalize anything; it just sent the land swap proposal back to DNRC to write an Environmental Assessment. While it would have been nice to be done with the issue, at least we achieved two strikes against it. Maintaining those two votes and gaining one more will terminate the proposal. Retaining Beaver Chew for the public is our preferred option, although we are open to considering reasonable alternatives.
17-Acre Recreational Easement
Members of the Jefferson River Canoe Trail exposed the landowner's ruse of the "4-acre gift" and eventually had it removed from the land exhange proposal. In July of 2015, SRI River Holdings responded with a new proposal, this time offering a recreational easement on a small portion of the state land at Beaver Chew. The ranch would take ownership of the 80-acre parcel while offering a recreational easment through Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks (FWP) for public camping on 17 acres of the original 80-acre site. On the surface, it seemed like a step towards a reasonable compromise. However, the devil is in the details.
Part of the 17-acre parcel is under the river, much of it covers rocky gravel bars where the public already has legal access, and only 4 acres is above the ordinary high water mark. These four acres are only accessible by boat in May and June when water levels are highest. SRI wants to limit the season of use from June 1 through August 31, and campers would be required to call the ranch 24 hours in advance of arriving there. These are highly unreasonable constraints on a "public" campsite. The recreatioanal easement would also be cancelled if visitors trespassed beyond the easment or otherwise abused the site.
As with former offerings from SRI River Holdings, this proposal for a recreation easement is written to appear as if SRI is addressing public needs and concerns at Beaver Chew without offering anything at all. Terms and conditions of the proposal are designed to a) reduce appeal of Beaver Chew so that people are less likely to stop there, and b) phase out the campsite altogether to achieve SRI's goal of eliminating public access from the Jefferson River.
Beaver Chew is the only significant parcel of riparian public land on the entire Jefferson River, offering an opportunity for activities such as mushroom hunting and bird watching that isn't available anywhere else. If people are confined to a corral, then there is less reason to stop there, and more need to trespass if one were camped there.
In addition to SRI's short-term goal of reducing the appeal of Beaver Chew to chase the public away, the ultimate purpose of the proposal is to eliminate public use and access altogether. SRI proposes that a recreation easement with FWP would be renewable every five years, but could be cancelled if the site were misused or if individuals trespassed from the campsite onto the ranch. If the same standard applied to all fishing access sites in Montana, then we would have no fishing access sites. While most backcountry visitors are good and reasonable people, there are occasional "bad apples." SRI has proposed the renewable recreation easement for the sole purpose of passing the land exchange package with the intent to eliminate the recreation easement as quickly as possible. For these reasons, SRI River Holdings' present amendment to the land exchange proposal is wholly unacceptable.
Nevertheless, we recognize that SRI River Holdings, DNRC, and upland sportsmen groups have invested a great deal of time and energy into developing the original land exchange proposal. Members of our organization would prefer to participate in the process of finding a viable solution that reasonably satisfies the needs of all concerned, and we would like to offer two proposals of our own, including a) a recreation easement on the full 80-acre parcel at Beaver Chew without SRI's restrictions, or b) the purchase of a new campsite farther downstream to fully separate the public from SRI River Holdings' ranchlands.
Preferred Alternative: An 80-Acre Recreation Easement at Beaver Chew
Beaver Chew is near an important Lewis and Clark campsite, and we would prefer to retain the public space as close as possible to the historic campsite. We propose first a recreation easement with FWP on the full 80-acre parcel consistent with terms currently applicable to DNRC lands.
If the Jefferson eventually migrates away from the parcel such that it is no longer possible to access the property from the river, then (and only then) would the recreation easement expire, so that the ranch would not have a lingering public inholding. (At present, the Jefferson River occupies a significant portion of the state parcel, but because the river is shifting east, more of the 80-acre parcel will likely be usable in the decades ahead.)
If the recreation easement were smaller than 80 acres, then it would be necessary to create a much more complicated easement agreement that would migrate with the river to ensure access for future generations.
Our 80-acre easement proposal allows DNRC to divest itself of property on the Jefferson River, gives upland sportsmen the access they want, and gives the public continued use of Beaver Chew. On the downside, this proposal does not address the landowner's fears about public access on or near the ranch, nor does it address the public's concerns about future intimidation from SRI River Holdings (such as the Private Property sign intended to drive people away from state land).
Compromise Alternative: 20 Acres at Waterloo
Another alternative, and a reasonable compromise to resolve the public-private issue, is for SRI River Holdings to purchase a separate campsite downstream and wholly detached from the ranch. There is presently a twenty-acre parcel for sale on the Jefferson River adjacent to Parson's Bridge at Waterloo offered by Trails End Land Company in Sheridan. The Jefferson River Canoe Trail is willing to accept this property as the first step in replacing the 80-acre parcel of state land at Beaver Chew.
If SRI River Holdings is sincere in the desire to segregate the public from the ranch, then this may be the most reasonable option to meet the needs of all parties, and the purchase is easily within the means of the landowner. The result: SRI wins, DNRC wins, and the upland sportsmen win. As for Jefferson River advocates, we trade away 80 acres at Beaver Chew for 20 acres with fewer restrictions at Waterloo.
To further compensate for the loss of Beaver Chew and the net loss of 60 acres of public land on the Jefferson River, members of our organization will work to purchase additional campsites upstream of Waterloo to fill in the gaps and ensure that there are ample, quality campsites for the public, without the public need to trespass onto SRI River Holdings or other private properties. Towards this end, we would respectfully request letters of support from the State Land Board urging priority funding for our grant applications until we have replaced the lost acreage on the upper Jefferson.
Members of the Jefferson River Canoe Trail could support either the 80-acre recreation easement at Beaver Chew or the property purchase at Waterloo and sign onto the land exchange proposal to finalize the deal without the need for a contentious public debate or litigation. We hope to see one or the other of our proposals included in the forthcoming Environmental Assessment as the "preferred alternative."
We need your help! We cannot allow SRI River Holdings to run us over with their latest "gift" that won't last. We need to negotiate an acceptable alternative, as outlined above, or have Beaver Chew removed from the land exchange proposal altogether.We need to inform the public and shed light on this trade before it passes under the radar. Please take a few minutes to send an email to the Montana Land Board and state your objections to the current land swap proposal:
Here are potential talking points to consider. Please phrase them in your own words, or add comments uniquely your own. Any opposition to the Land Trade Proposal will help!
- The 80-acre parcel serves as a designated floater camp known as Beaver Chew on the Jefferson River Canoe Trail segment of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail, as featured on our Canoe Trail Maps
- The Big Hole parcel is not an equivalent parcel, because it is not on the Jefferson River nor the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail.
- Lewis and Clark camped at the confluence of the Big Hole and Beaverhead Rivers. Meriwether Lewis left a note for William Clark at the confluence of the Big Hole and Beaverhead rivers, but a beaver cut it down, and Clark led the canoes up the wrong fork, leading to a near fatal accident. The expedition camped at the confluence to dry their gear. The state land is just downstream from this Lewis and Clark campsite.
- Public lands are already scarce on the Jefferson River, and no other site offers such a rich and lush riparian ecosystem with extensive cottonwood woodlands, open meadows, and abundant wildlife.
- The Big Hole parcel only serves floaters on the Big Hole River, while Beaver Chew serves floaters coming down both the Big Hole and Beaverhead rivers and is a great stopover before continuing down the Jefferson River.
- Population growth and user demand will continue to grow over time, so it is important to take the long-term view and retain Beaver Chew for use by future generations.
- The next available public land open to camping is 25 miles downstream.
- Taking away public land encourages floaters to trespass and camp on private lands.
- Floaters do have the option of camping almost anywhere within the ordinary high water mark, but people are naturally drawn beyond the riverbanks. Therefore, we need to retain public lands such as Beaver Chew to provide suitable camping sites to reduce trespass issues.
Please phrase these talking points into your own words. Submit them via email to the Montana Land Board at email@example.com. You are also welcome to send a copy of your letter to us at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks so much for your support!
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