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Stevensville access

A group of adventurous floaters get a jump-start on this year's boating season earlier this spring after launching at the reopened access point just downstream from the bridge leading to Stevensville. The new owner of the Fort Owen Ranch signed a one-year agreement with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks recently to officially open the site for public use. The state is now asking for the public to weigh in on a proposal that would build a permanent fishing access site there. 

If everything comes together just right, work will get underway this fall to build a dedicated fishing access site on the Bitterroot River just west of Stevensville.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks recently released an environmental analysis that offers the public its first comprehensive look at proposed development plans for a portion of a seven-acre site offered as a donation by the adjoining landowner.

The popular fishing access site is located entirely on private property. Last year, it was closed to the public by a disgruntled former landowner.

The concrete barriers came down this spring after the Fort Owen Ranch was purchased by Myla Yahraus, who has offered to donate about seven acres to the state for the development of a dedicated fishing access site that will include improved parking, a concrete latrine, fencing, trail connections and four primitive camping spots.

FWP is working with the Stevensville city officials to potentially develop some additional parking at a town-owned park directly downstream from the site.

FWP Fishing Access Site Program Manager Rory Zarling said once the site is developed, it will be one of three fishing access sites along the Bitterroot River that allow camping. The others include Chief Looking Glass to the north and Hannon Memorial to the south.

“Stevensville is right in the center,” Zarling said. “We thought it would be a great spot to add some additional camping opportunities for the public.”

The number of spots was kept to four as both a courtesy to the adjoining landowner and a way to remain within budget limitations. Development of the new fishing access site is expected to cost between $195,000 and $225,000.

“With fewer campsites, there will be some more elbow room for people,” he said. “It will be quality versus quantity.”

Sometime in the future, there may be additional opportunities for walk or bike-in sites on the portion of the seven acres that won’t be developed or at the town’s park.

“We’re taking it step-by-step, with the main push to get something nice built in the near future,” Zarling said.

The improvements in parking will be what most people who use the site will notice.

The environmental assessment includes two alternatives that consider different scenarios.

The preferred alternative includes the Stevensville allowing overflow parking to occur in their lot at the town park. That alternative calls for creating 25 truck and trailer parking stalls at the main fishing access site, allowing five or six cars to park near the river bank and having room for an additional eight to 12 trucks and trailers at the town park.

If the town is unable to participate, Zarling said an additional 14 to 16 parking places will be developed along the river bank.

“Parking is going to be a lot safer and a lot more organized when this is completed,” Zarling said.

FWP does plan to fence off a portion of the riparian area just below the boat launch to allow for re-vegetation.

FWP Fisheries Manager Pat Saffel said there are still a number of things that need to happen before construction can get underway.

The state will take public comment on the proposal through Friday, July 6.

FWP will be required to obtain several permits for working in the floodplain. The land board also must agree to accept the donation and the Fish and Game Commission needs to sign off on the project.

“If everything falls into place perfectly, we could begin construction in the fall,” Saffel said. “The weather is more stable in the fall, which would allow us to get more done. If we have to wait until spring, it’s kind of hard to know what we might be looking at.”

FWP also agreed to extend the walking trail from Stevensville to the new site.

“We recognize that people will come to the site for a lot of different reasons,” he said. “It’s definitely going to be a multiple-use site…It’s been a roller coaster ride getting here. We thought we were done last year and then there’s been this real turnaround in a dramatic fashion.

“I think the city of Stevensville and all the people who have used it in the past are very excited about it,” Saffel said.

Stevensville Mayor Brandon Dewey said the town is excited not only about the new fishing access site, but also the potential it opens up for the park property just downstream.

The town will have a better idea of how it will move forward with management of the park after the state finishes its work on the new fishing access site.

“We look forward to leveraging the resources we have with each other to ensure that we have a product in the end that is enjoyable for everyone to use,” Dewey said.

The proposed acquisition and development plans are outlined in an Environmental Assessment (EA). To review the draft EA and to comment, go to FWP’s website, fwp.mt.gov, under “News,” then “Recent Public Notices.” Or, request information and provide comment by contacting FWP Region 2; Attn: Sharon Rose; 3201 Spurgin Rd.; Missoula 59804; by phoning 406-542-5540; or by emailing shrose@mt.gov.

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Associate Editor

Reporter for The Ravalli Republic.