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A 160-acre piece of land in the West Bridger Mountains that was once private is now public thanks to a local family, a land trust and various donors.

Staff from the Gallatin Valley Land Trust and the U.S. Forest Service gathered Thursday afternoon near the mouth of Middle Cottonwood Canyon to celebrate the latest addition to the Custer Gallatin National Forest.

Bill Cochran, board chair of GVLT, and Corey Lewellen, Bozeman District Ranger of the Custer Gallatin National Forest, each cut a red ribbon in a meadow above the Middle Cottonwood trail. A cliff band where Lewellen once saw a crowd of mountain goats loomed above.

“Just a few years ago, there was a development proposal out here that would have put a couple houses here in this meadow,” said Brendan Weiner, GVLT’s conservation director. “The plan was to build a road from the trailhead up the trail area and switch-back it through this aspen grove to get to the houses up above here.”

That didn’t happen. After the 160-acre property went up for sale in 2019, GVLT jumped into action. The land trust bought the land in April 2020 and transferred it to the Forest Service this August.

Local landowner Mike Skogen owned the property for 8 years before he put it up for sale, according to Weiner. Skogen had proposed a development plan that included a road and houses, which could have significantly changed the trail corridor.

Though the property is relatively small, it’s surrounded almost entirely by national forest and the Middle Cottonwood trail crosses through it. It hosts important wildlife habitat.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks mapped the property as a critical winter range for elk and mule deer. Two spring-fed creeks wind through it near groves of aspen, open meadows and mature forest.

“The Middle Cottonwood Trail would look and feel pretty different with a driveway and some houses a half-mile up in prime habitat,” Weiner said in a news release. “Opportunities like this one don’t come around very often and we are grateful to the project partners and especially the landowners for making it happen.”

When Skogen — a hunter and public lands user — saw how important the property was for wildlife, he decided he’d rather see it conserved, Weiner said. GVLT staff put together a deal, then bought the land in April 2020.

“Without him and without the Skogen family, this project would not have happened,” Weiner said. “They were really generous. They donated about half the value of this property and they opened the door for the project to happen.”

The land trust contributed about $100,000 toward the purchase, but secured about six more grants from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, the Mule Deer Foundation and other groups to help pay for it, Weiner said.

Local conservation groups, private donors and businesses including MAP Brewing, Sitka Gear and onX supported their efforts financially.

“Public access to public land is a big part of the culture of onX,” said Josh Spitzer, COO and CFO at onX, at the ribbon-cutting ceremony. “It’s exciting to support this.”

“This is a great collaboration between private companies, private donors and nonprofits,” said Laura Orvidas, CEO of onX.

This August, the land trust transferred the property to the Forest Service. That means the public can now access the whole 160-acre parcel, where they may spot mule deer, elk, moose, mountain goats, eagles and other wildlife. On Thursday, songbirds could be heard calling through the trees.

“Because it’s surrounded by national forest on three-and-a-half sides, transferring it to the Forest Service made sense from a management perspective,” Weiner said. “The Forest Service also manages the trail.”

Balancing the need for public access while respecting private property is a challenge amid the threat of development. The process for the Forest Service to secure new land is long and involved, but having partners like GVLT makes it much more efficient, Lewellen said.

“We are so excited to add this valuable habitat as public lands to the Custer Gallatin National Forest,” Lewellen said in a news release. “I’m incredibly grateful for GVLTs leadership, the generosity of the Skogen family, and the support from a long list of key partners who all helped make this important project happen.”

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Helena Dore can be reached at hdore@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2628.

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