More than 100 outdoorsmen and women, along with U.S. Sen. Steve Daines and Montana Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney, attended the Aug. 27 dedication ceremony for the newly opened Falls Creek trailhead, which gives access to 442 acres of wild forest and meadows that was until recently in private hands.
Those 442 acres connect to the Helena-Lewis and Clark Forest and open up 26,000 more acres that, without the Falls Creek acquisition, were almost impossible to access from any other route.
The land and waters also serve as habitat and rangeland for several different Montana wildlife: elk, whitetail deer, grizzly and black bears, mountain lions and a variety of fish.
Lewis and Clark County rancher Dan Barrett said his family has owned the land for the last century.
“It was homesteaded by my dad’s uncle in the 1910s. I knew I was going to sell it at some point, and the way I saw it, I had three options: subdivide it, sell it to private organizations and individuals or make it public land for everyone to enjoy. It was an easy decision,” said Barrett.
The trailhead can be found southwest of Augusta, past Bean Lake on the Dearborn Canyon Road. Hiking just a third of a mile down the trail takes one to a cliff overlook of the scenic Falls Creek waterfall. Across the creek, one can see buildings peeking out of the trees, part of the Diamond Bar X subdivision — land that has a violent history of access disputes.
Dan and Sue Della Rossa, standing alongside Barrett, unveiled the sign that will now stand at the trailhead. The Della Rossa couple owned a cabin in the Diamond Bar X subdivision when a land access dispute among their neighbors turned deadly. In 2013, landowner Joseph Campbell shot and killed fellow Diamond Bar X resident Timothy Newman as the two men stood on opposite sides of a fence.
Testimonies during the trial said Campbell had purchased land that bordered public forest from an owner who had for years allowed people to cross the land to access the forest. After Campbell bought the land, he put up fences. Lawsuits were filed stating Newman had been cutting Campbell’s gate locks. On the day of the shooting, the two men were standing at opposite sides of a fence. Campbell testified that Newman had followed him and his wife and was acting erratically, and that he shot Newman in self-defense.
Campbell entered a no contest plea to negligent homicide, which carried a 20-year prison sentence. The 20 years were suspended, but Campbell was ordered to stay 10 miles away from the subdivision, not possess any firearms and have no contact with Newman’s family members.
“This Falls Creek access is so special, especially if you know the tragic history of the area,” Sue said.
Another detail that makes this acquisition special is the number of public and private entities that collaborated to make it happen. Organizations that provided project funding include the Lewis and Clark County Open Lands Program, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, the Land and Water Conservation Fund, Montana Fish and Wildlife Conservation Trust, Bass Pro Shops, The Conservation Fund, Safari Club International – Great Falls Chapter, The Conservation Alliance and the Mule Deer Foundation. Many private individuals also contributed.
“Anytime something like this happens, there’s a lot of moving pieces on the chessboard. … In this particular action, the federal government had a smaller part, and I want to give credit where credit is due and thank all the state and local partners that made this possible,” said Daines, addressing the crowd at the dedication ceremony.
“At a time where land management and natural resources seems to be so controversial … we’re setting an example of what can be accomplished when we put ourselves ahead of others,” said Cooney.
Forest Supervisor Bill Avey expressed gratitude for all the partners listed above in his speech, and also added special thanks to Rocky Mountain District Ranger Mike Munoz, saying Munoz’s actions were “the epitome of using the law to benefit the American public.”
The Falls Creek land will be managed in the same way the adjacent National Forest is. Use of motorized vehicles is prohibited. Also, there is no overnight camping at the trailhead parking area, but the trail welcomes campers to set up between the Dearborn Road and the river.