Long-Term Vision: The Conservation of Alvord Lake Community Forest (Part I)
By Matt Hart
On July 8, 2016, Vital Ground proudly dedicated the Alvord Lake Community Forest at a celebration with community members and partners in Troy, Mont. We’re now excited to share the full story of the coalition that formed over the 14-year battle to conserve this scenic area in the heart of the Cabinet-Yaak region. Read Part I below then follow the link at the bottom of the page to Part II.
On a crisp spring morning in the forest above Troy, Mont., Gary Jones was jogging along the sickle-shaped perimeter of Alvord Lake. Snow lingered on the high slopes of the Purcell Mountains as the tall and limber 50-year old pounded the Forest Service trail, completing his usual three-mile circumnavigation of the lake and thinking pleasantly about a future in which he and Kathy, his wife, would spend less time in Seattle and more in Troy.
With the lake less than a mile north of their house, he considered how they would see Alvord and its denizens in all of their colors. Dark firs and cedars splitting deep blue sky and water in summer, the flash of black wings and red eyes from a nesting pair of loons; an arc of grays and browns and white in winter, the occasional chocolate flanks of a moose lumbering through snow.
Jones thought back to his childhood, to fishing and hiking with his great uncle in the same tangled mountains crammed into the northwest corner of the state. Two years ago, he and Kathy had celebrated the new millennium by buying his great uncle’s old property from a new owner, bringing it back into the family and building on it a new home full of their dreams. It would be a good day when they could begin settling deeper into the rhythms of the place.
That same spring of 2002, the portrait of contentment held by the Joneses—and many others in Troy—fell under threat. On a chilly April evening in the conference room at the U.S. Forest Service’s Troy Ranger Station, District Ranger Mike Balboni delivered the news: Plum Creek Timber Company had decided to sell its 142-acre chunk of land along Alvord Lake, the only stretch of shoreline not owned by the USFS. The buyer would be a development company named Montana Mountain Valley LLC, and the outcome of the purchase would be subdivision of the property into private lakeside home lots.
“They had one thing and one thing only in mind,” recalled Jones. “To make money.”
Balboni explained that while the existing houses outside of Troy—like the Joneses’—gave each other plenty of breathing room, the lake homes at Alvord would be packed together tightly for maximum profit. The Forest Service’s well-worn trail around the lake—not to mention the loons’ nesting ground and the moose’s winter range—would be severed by the development.
“If something doesn’t get done, it’s not going to look like it does now,” Balboni told the gathered stakeholders.
Fourteen years later, something has gotten done.
On Friday, July 8, 2016, close to 100 community members and collaborators gathered at the lake to celebrate the remarkable coalition of local organizations and government agencies that created the Alvord Lake Community Forest, a shared resource that The Vital Ground Foundation, a Missoula-based land trust, will own and manage in collaboration with the U.S. Forest Service and the Troy community.
The pathway to protection was long and fitful, beginning after Balboni’s meeting in 2002 with the formation of a local stakeholders’ group, rescued a year later when the Joneses fronted enough money to outbid developers and buy the land, then languid for a decade as the couple sought a permanent conservation solution, and a return on their stopgap purchase. Finally, creative collaboration, inspiring volunteerism, and an underutilized federal program would save the day, and the place, for the area’s residents—human and otherwise. In the process, those involved would bridge disparate values and rally around their shared commitment to a threatened resource, forging a powerful model of community resilience.
Montana’s lowest elevation is found not along its eastern plains, but in its northwest corner, where the Kootenai River carves the bottom of its U-shaped course before turning north toward the Idaho Panhandle, Canada, and the south-charging, sea-bent Columbia.
With an elevation hovering around 1,800 feet and a human population just under 1,000, Troy is smaller and less commercial than the crossroads city of Libby 18 miles upstream. The cliff-strewn Purcell Mountains pour down from the north and the taller, jagged Cabinets spike the southern horizon. Eight hundred vertical feet above town, the descending sedimentary slopes of the Purcells carved out a chain of four small lakes, with Alvord Lake—named after its first known homesteaders—the largest and northernmost.
As it did across the West, the 20th century brought industry to Lincoln County, Mont. Revett Mining Co. began pulling copper and silver out of the mountains, while Plum Creek Timber pulled lumber off their faces. But a new millennium brought new trends: Revett sold the soon-to-be-closed Troy Mine, and in 2000, Seattle-based Plum Creek—one of the nation’s largest private landowners—opted to sell 34,000 acres in its Troy Block. Twenty-eight thousand of them would go to its competitor, Stimson Lumber Co., which would eventually place the land in conservation easement. The remaining 6,000, however, would become “highest and best use”—or HBU—land. Knowing well the lucrative potential of waterfront property, Plum Creek included its 142 acres abutting Alvord Lake in the HBU package and sold it to Montana Mountain Valley LLC, but not before harvesting all the timber it could from the parcel.
“It was what we call high-grade for years,” explained Ed Levert, chair of Lincoln County’s Firewise Council and the Libby chapter of the Society of American Foresters. “The species composition had changed—the big pine and larch were gone. When you first look at the property, it’s like, ‘My goodness, why would you want that?’ But it’s really a long-term vision.”
That vision—of a healing forest instead of home sites—grew from the consensus response to Balboni’s meeting in 2002.
“Everyone was definitely of a mind to do whatever could be done individually and collectively to preserve that piece of land,” Gary Jones recalled. With the Forest Service already managing the complete loop trail around the lake and Balboni voicing the agency’s interest in acquiring the parcel, community members agreed that completing USFS ownership of the lake made sense. Balboni requested federal funding for the purchase while the Joneses formed Friends of Alvord Lake LLC to keep a communal eye on the process and provide a stopgap, if necessary, on the way to Forest Service control.
“We didn’t really feel a huge sense of urgency as a group,” Jones said. “Things were pretty loosely structured.”
Urgency arrived, however, when an outright Forest Service purchase never received approval from Washington, D.C., and Montana Mountain Valley altered its course.
“We had already gotten a verbal first right of refusal from [Montana Mountain Valley] that Friends of Alvord Lake would have the first right to purchase the land,” Jones explained. “Then all of a sudden one day we found out the property was under contract with a developer to be sold.”
With 28 days to meet or beat the new developer’s offer, Friends of Alvord Lake began desperately searching for funding. With the deadline—and the image of a subdivided lakeshore—looming, and no answers emerging from the group’s emergency meetings, the Joneses acted on their own.
“To make a long story short,” Jones explained, “we were assured by multiple entities that if we could come up with the money to buy the property, it would be a stopgap measure, and this entity and this entity and this entity would come up with their portion of the pie and reimburse us.”
The Joneses would eventually buy the property from Montana Mountain Valley for $800,000, besting the potential developer’s offer and utilizing their first right of refusal to ensure the deal. But not before a last-gasp legal effort by the new developer, as the Joneses woke up one morning to learn they were being sued.
“Fortunately, I had gotten them to put it in writing,” Gary Jones said. “We won, and we knew we were going to win. When the attorneys sat down and looked at everything, they told the developer that.” Still, the legal defense would postpone closure on the property for six months and cost the Joneses $35,000.
“I’m 64 years old and have done plenty of business in my life,” Jones recalled. “This was the only time I’ve been involved in any kind of litigation, and I hope it’s the last. It was nasty.”
The purchase was finally completed during the summer of 2003, but it was hardly the end of the road for the Joneses and Friends of Alvord Lake. With no progress on a Forest Service purchase, the group began searching for other long-term solutions, including habitat protection programs run by Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks (FWP).
“There was a lot of community support for not having it sold to private development,” recalled Gael Bissell, who was working at the time as a wildlife biologist for FWP, and who was contacted by the Forest Service around the time of the initial community meeting. “Everyone agreed they would like to see the Forest Service get it, but we had so few ideas of how we’d get that kind of capital. There was much more optimism when Gary decided to stick his neck out.”
With the stopgap purchase made, Jones turned again to Bissell, a well-connected ally after 20 years of conservation work around the state.
“I went through a list of conservation options with Gary—zone easements, triple bargain sale easements, things like that,” Bissell explained. “But I couldn’t really find the right program for it at that time. The community really wanted federal ownership.”
And so the wait continued, with the Joneses becoming more discouraged with each passing year.
“I’d get calls from Gary every few years saying things like, ‘The Forest Service doesn’t have any money, nothing’s happening,’” Bissell recalled. “He’s a patient soul.”
That patience would eventually butt heads with financial realities, however. In 2012, the couple reached the tough decision that it could no longer keep treading water.
“Fast-forward 10 years and we still haven’t seen a dime from anybody,” Jones said. “We could have done a lot of other things in those years that would have been revenue-producing.”
Bissell recalled a conversation with Jones late in 2012, after he had approached the board of the Montana Fish & Wildlife Conservation Trust. “He said, ‘If I can get funding from them, great. If I can’t, I’m selling it. I can’t keep it anymore.’”