Sunday, April 14, 2024
73.0°F

Landowners object to FWS efforts to use conservation lands for new headquarters

by KRISTI NIEMEYER
Editor | March 28, 2024 12:00 AM

Lifelong Charlo rancher Pete Vaughan, his wife, Nancy, and their son, Dean, are not enthused about a Fish and Wildlife Service proposal to build a new headquarters on a Waterfowl Production Area next to their family’s 300-acre ranch.

According to Pete, they’ve posted flyers and reached out to neighbors, local landowners and conservation organizations, urging them to take action before the public comment period ends next Wednesday, April 3.  

On March 4, the FWS emailed an announcement of a draft supplemental Environmental Assessment (EA) for the proposed construction of a new FWS headquarters to administer the Northwest Montana Wetland Management District. That announcement was sent to local newspapers, although few (including the Leader) appear to have published it, and gave the public until next Wednesday, April 3, to respond to the proposal.

Dean Vaughan, a biologist who has worked for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for more than 30 years, says few people in the Mission Valley saw the announcement, and has suggested that a public meeting – while not legally required – would be appropriate. 

Under this new alternative, the FWS has proposed to use 12 acres of the 80-acre parcel to build a new headquarters that would include a 4,700-square-foot office and visitors’ center; a residence; a 5,500-square-foot maintenance shop; 2,000 square feet of warm storage; 6,000 square feet of cold storage; a five-acre equipment yard; and additional living spaces for staff and interns.

Although the draft supplemental EA says the FWS is looking at five Waterfowl Production Areas as potential sites – identified as Duck Haven, Johnson 80, Kickinghorse, Montgomery and Sandsmark – it concludes, “The Montgomery WPA would meet more of the siting criteria than the other locations for the proposed new facilities.”

The Montgomery WPA appears to be a preferred location largely due to its access via two paved secondary roads – “in contrast to the other WPAs that are accessed via dirt or unsafe paved roads like U.S. Highway 93, without a turning lane.”

The EA suggests that the new facility would increase traffic by up to 10 vehicles a day for employees, and projects that 75 to 100 people would drop by the visitors’ center annually. Pete say he’s skeptical of that estimate, since hundreds of duck and pheasant hunters already crowd the back roads each fall.  

A similar 2021 proposal to build the headquarters on a different WPA was dropped two years ago after the service received 25 largely negative comments about the plan. Instead, FWS then embarked on an attempt to purchase property for its new home.

The staff reached out to realtors and property owners, looked at 26 properties and showed interest in 15 of those. Although three offers were made – each of which had to adhere to the federal government’s strict appraisal guidelines – none of them was accepted.

Ben Gilles, project leader for the Western Montana Refuges Complex, which includes Ninepipes and Pablo National Wildlife Refuges and the many Waterfowl Production Areas in the Mission Valley, says escalating property values were an issue.

“The federal government acquisition process takes quite a while,” he explained. “We have to get a federally approved appraisal and once that happens that’s the amount we can pay for the property to make sure we’re responsible stewards of the public’s tax dollars.”

They spent much of a year trying to close a deal, “and ultimately the landowner got an offer that was for more than ours and they chose to accept that offer.”

That’s when FWS returned to the notion of building on land the service already owns.

Pete Vaughan’s grandparents homesteaded an allotment about a mile from the proposed site, and his father and mother bought the parcel where Dean and his family now live. Pete and his wife, Nancy, who live on the original homestead, say they’re concerned about the construction of a commercial facility in a rural setting, alongside the property line of their family’s actively managed farm/ranch.

Many of the Waterfowl Production Areas in the Mission Valley were purchased in the 1970s and 1980s when waterfowl numbers were dwindling, using proceeds from the federal Duck Stamp program. The areas help preserve habitat for a number of species, and are also available to the public for bird watching, fishing and hunting.

Pete suspects those property owners who originally sold parcels as Waterfowl Production Areas – like Monty and Eileen Montgomery, who are no longer living – did so expecting that land would remain part of the public land trust.

Indeed, many of the objections to the initial EA proposal were centered around “diverting land preserved for wildlife to office space,” said Gilles.

Dean, who works out of his home in his position as a biologist with Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program, shares his dad’s concerns. He also made it clear that his objections to the FWS building its headquarters on the Montgomery parcel are based on the proximity of the property to his family’s property and his views as a landowner and private citizen.

He points to the FWS mission statement, which calls upon the agency “to work with others to conserve, protect and enhance fish, wildlife, plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people.”

“Nowhere does it say develop conservation-protected lands for facilities,” Vaughan says.

“We don’t love that either. We don’t like to see the conversion of habitat into buildings,” Gilles said. “That being said, if we don’t have the ability to manage our resources out of somewhere there’s a cost to the habitat and resources as well.”

Hunting for a new home

The Fish and Wildlife Service staff was displaced from its nearly century-long home at the Bison Range when the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes reclaimed the refuge in 2020. Since then, FWS employees have been stationed on leased tribal land north of Ninepipes that consists of a few prebuilt sheds that were converted to offices, an outdoor toilet, and a recently installed semi-permanent tent structure for equipment storage.

Employees stationed in the Mission Valley include a refuge manager, two biologists, two maintenance workers and a seasonal employee. Gilles, who works out of the Benton Lake National Wildlife Refuge near Great Falls, anticipates that a team of around seven employees will work at the new facility “for the foreseeable future,” and says additional office space could be used for employees of related wildlife programs.

As for the proposed visitors’ center, Gilles envisions “a small area where people can get brochures and information.” The EA describes it “as a place for the public to interact with refuge staff and interpretive opportunities for the public to learn about the mission of the NWRS, the surrounding area and our wildlife.”

Around $12 million is budgeted for the entire project, which will be largely financed with money from the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

Pete and Dean, who continue to raise hay and cattle on land that’s been in their family for six generations, say the irrigation ditch that brings water to their acreage flows across the Montgomery WPA. The ditch was clogged with weeds two years ago and flooded his alfalfa field and the area where the proposed headquarters will be built.

According to Dean, the service has yet to conduct an extensive hydrology study of the proposed site, which would include coordination with the Flathead Indian Irrigation Project.

The 3,160 acres of WPA properties in the Mission Valley are part of a large, interconnected web of public lands. The Ninepipe National Wildlife Refuge’s 2,062 acres are surrounded by 3,420 acres of Montana State Wildlife Management Areas, approximately 3,000 acres of CSKT lands, and 6,400 acres of FWS conservation easements that prevent housing developments and wetland drainage.

The Vaughan family clearly appreciates the open spaces that envelope their farm/ranch, which is held in a family trust. Pete, who turns 85 in October, is the current trustee. He says the ranch in its entirety is his legacy “to pass on to future generations.”

According to Gilles, even if the service builds on one of the WPAs, it will continue to look for conservation property to purchase “so we would actually have a net gain in protected acres and habitat overall. We’re just looking for the right piece of property,” he said.

After the public comment period ends, Gillis says the planning staff will review those comments and “hopefully we’ll have come to a decision by early summer.”

“In an ideal world, we would build the summer of 2025.”

Meanwhile the Vaughan family and several other property owners in the area are voicing opposition to the plan and encouraging other conservation-minded landowners and organizations to do the same by the April 3 deadline.

The draft supplemental EA is available at www.fws.gov/media/northwest-montana-wetland-management-district-administrative-facilities-draft-supplemental. Comments can be submitted by email to FW6NorthwestMontanaWMD@fws.gov or by mail to: 53775 MT HWY 212 Charlo, MT 59824.