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Conservation group approaches deadline to save public land

Missouri River Open Lands area
Posted at 2:43 PM, May 30, 2024

GREAT FALLS — The legacy of Lewis & Clark is present in numerous communities along the Missouri River. Two 40-acre parcels of land adjacent to Great Falls along Fox Farm and Flood roads is no different. The threat to the conservation of public land and the regions history is at stake.

Conservation group approaches deadline to save public land

"We could use a small miracle." Douglas Ormseth, President of the Missouri River Open Lands Preservation said.

An effort dating back to previous MTN coverage in 2022, Ormseth is at the helm of fundraising efforst to obtain a conservation easement on the parcels to prevent future development.

"It could be just about any scary thing you could think of. It could be a fertilizer plant." Ormseth said.

The parcels of land are a part of State School Trust Land designated in the 1800s to generate revenue for the University of Montana.

"They are required to try to get the most money possible. In other parts of Montana, they have done things like strip malls or nursing homes. It's not technically zoned because it's state property." He added.

If the groups $1 million goal to purchase a Conservation Easement fails, the land would be leased to the highest bidder for future development projects.

2018: Group works to preserve land
2022: Agency works to stop development

Although, it's unclear what development projects could land on Fox Farm Road, Ormseth believes the development of homes on the south end the road will put more pressure on Meadowlark Elementary as it handles an influx of students following recent growth projects.

"They might have to be bused to West Elementary or build another school somewhere," speculated Ormseth.

The historical appeal from Missouri River Open Lands Preservation is only a minor push for the easement. Ormseth says residents frequently use the land for bird dog training, water recreation, and wildlife watching.

"There is tons of wildlife here. It's great for bird watching. We have pictures of Antelope on the land and migrating Snow Geese." Ormseth said. "What city in Montana can claim they had a huge flock of migrating Snow Geese come right through town? If we didn't have this land here, they probably wouldn't have stopped."

Wayne Green is a former Forest Service employee and moved to Great Falls nearly 20 years ago. The New Mexico native says public access and stream laws in Montana are second to none.

"Access is not well developed like it is here where you have Stream Access law which is an unbelievable law for Montana. It’s great.”

Green mentioned, the neighborhood adjacent to the state land is under leash law with voice control over dogs. When recreating on the 80 acres of public land, leash law is no longer in jurisdiction.

"It's great for the dog and I'll get to see some birds in the off season."

Some arguments to the movement online discussed the Great Falls Housing crisis and how a piece of land like this could alleviate the pressure. Ormseth says, parcels across from the state land have been for sale for decades. He claims one home has been built since the parcels went up for sale. As a former city employee, Ormseth has a solution before dissolving a piece of history and untouched nature close to town.

Public Land Facebook Argument

“There is so much infill opportunity for affordable housing with just infill development and then people are closer to services." Ormseth said. "It doesn't stretch the police and the fire. The more we spread out, especially out of the city limits, it hurts the budget of the city and the county because they just have more land to cover without extra resources.”

If the Conservation Easement is granted, it will be written to the County of Cascade to delegate responsibility of the land.

Missouri River Open lands Preservation group has until August 31, 2024 to raise $600,000 to reach its target of $1 million.

To find out more about the mission of the group and to donate, visit the Missouri River Open Lands Preservation website.