STEVENSVILLE - Paul Hayes wants people to know that the Friends of the Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge is alive and well.

Earlier this month, the group presented the Bitter Root Land Trust a $10,000 grant to help that organization preserve open space in the vicinity of the refuge.

"We thought this was a really good tie-in with our mission to preserve the refuge and enhance the area around it," said Hayes, president of the Friends group. "The refuge is a little island that depends on what happens around it."

Last August, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service cut ties with the Friends following disagreements the service said created "an unproductive working environment" between the two organizations.

Since then, Hayes said the Friends has continued to raise funds through membership fees and proceeds from its refuge license plate, but the organization has not been allowed to start any new projects inside the refuge.

"We didn't want that money just sitting there and doing nothing,' Hayes said. "We felt like we needed to do something that showed we're still active as far as the welfare of the refuge. This seemed like a good fit."

The Bitter Root Land Trust has worked with a number of Stevensville-area landowners over the last few years to preserve family farms, open space and important wildlife habitat.

Those efforts can take a great deal of time and effort to come to fruition, said Bitter Root Land Trust executive director Gavin Ricklefs.

The grant provides the trust with additional flexibility to continue its work to preserve open lands in the vicinity of the refuge.

"We are extremely thankful and appreciative for this big donation from the Friends of the Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge," Ricklefs said. "Their generous support will ensure more landowners in the vicinity of the refuge will have the opportunity to work with the land trust to conserve their family lands for future generations."

The funds will be used to work on projects that benefit the refuge by protecting things like habitat, water quality and open space.

"Our litmus test will be: Is there a tangible benefit for the refuge?" Ricklefs said. "Projects that protect water and habitat resources certainly have a benefit for the refuge."

The work being accomplished in the Stevensville-area by the land trust is a good fit for the mission of the Friends group, said Fred Thomas, the group's secretary.

"They provide a voluntary, landowner-driven tool to conserve important landscapes in this community," Thomas said. "These projects will likely have substantial conservation results for resources we care deeply about on and around the Lee Metcalf Refuge."

Founding Friends board member Dale Burk agreed.

"From the founding of our Friends group to the present, and on into the future, our mission is to support and enhance the virtues of the Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge, and we've continued that emphasis with the ultimate goal of making things even better for the Metcalf and the wild creatures its being embodies," Burk said.

Refuge manager Tom Reed said he is "very encouraged" with the direction of the partnership.

Reed opted not to speak directly about any future relationship between the refuge and the Friends organization, but did say that volunteers continue to play an important role.

"Any volunteer is encouraged and appreciated for their involvement at the refuge," Reed said. "That has not changed. We have a whole league of volunteers here and they do a lot of good things."

Hayes said the Friends hopes that its relations with the refuge can some day be repaired.

"We are still hoping that some day we will be allowed back on the refuge," he said. "We're still active and we're still trying to do good things for the refuge."

Reach reporter Perry Backus at 363-3300 or pbackus@ravallirepublic.com.