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A piece of private land with steep hills, rocky outcroppings and a big aspen grove along a popular trail on the west side of the Bridger Mountains will soon end up in public hands.

The Gallatin Valley Land Trust announced this week that it had purchased 160 acres on the north side of Middle Cottonwood Trail, a multi-use route that follows Middle Cottonwood Creek.

The land trust plans to donate the property to the U.S. Forest Service, making it public for good. It will fill out a contiguous block of public land around the trailhead about six miles northeast of Bozeman.

Brendan Weiner, program director for GVLT, said the acquisition locks in public access for the trail and protects the land from development, ensuring the preservation of habitat for mule deer and elk.

“It’s really a gem of a property,” Weiner said.

The land trust doesn’t usually buy property — often it helps negotiate conservation easements as a way of preventing development and preserving open space.

But in this instance, Weiner said buying the land was the best option. The landowner had owned the property for more than a decade and was looking to sell it, not put a conservation easement on it.

Weiner said they had been talking to the landowner for nearly three years when the deal got done earlier this month.

The land was appraised at about $752,000, according to GVLT. Weiner said the land trust raised about $300,000 for the project from a variety of donors.

The landowner donated the remaining value, which counts as a charitable donation. Weiner said that donation was crucial to getting the deal done.

“There’s no way we could have raised the full appraised value,” Weiner said. “Without the landowner working with us we wouldn’t have been able to get it done.”

Land donations to the Forest Service take time. The agency has to do some level of environmental analysis and legal review before taking the land. Weiner said GVLT has tried to make this transfer as simple as possible, and that he expects the donation to be complete sometime in the next two to four years.

The land features a big aspen grove and some willows. Higher up, rocky outcroppings poke out. A spring-fed creek also runs through it, Weiner said.

Morgan Jacobsen, spokesman for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, said elk, mule deer, moose and black bears likely use the area.

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Michael Wright can be reached at mwright@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2638.

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