Tom Elpel along Big Hole River

Tom Elpel, founding member of the Jefferson River Canoe Trail, inspects a section of land along the Big Hole River on July 10. On Monday, the State Land Board approved a land swap along the Jefferson and Big Hole rivers that Elpel had fought.

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The state Land Board on Monday approved a controversial land swap that included transferring 80 acres of Jefferson River-front property to a wealthy, out-of-state landowner.

The five elected officials on the board gave a unanimous thumbs up to the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation’s deal with Swift River Investments, a Massachusetts-based investment firm whose principals are brothers Benjamin, David and Hamilton “Tony” James.

“I recognize that certainly a decision like this disappoints some, but I also believe that it is a win for the school trust and actually enhances public access in many respects,” said Gov. Steve Bullock, who made public land access a major prong of his re-election campaign this year.

Overall, the state netted about 245 acres — the state gave up 616 acres in exchange for 861 acres of private land. Whether that’s a good deal for the public was questioned for months.

Members of the Jefferson River Canoe Trail, a branch of the National Park Service’s Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail, fought the deal, arguing that the loss of the state’s 80-acre parcel along the Jefferson River — known as Beaver Chew for its proximity to a notable chapter of the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1805 — was morally wrong, if not legally questionable.

The deal was supported by notable groups, including the Public Lands/Water Access Association and the Skyline Sportsmen. They called it a win-win because the Jefferson River property would be replaced by a 111-acre parcel upstream along the Big Hole River.

And the state’s acquisition from SRI River Holdings of 750 acres in the Rochester Basin, swap proponents promised, would substantially improve public access to thousands of federal acres in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest.

After testimony, both for and against, Monica Lindeen, a land board member and state auditor, said she was obliged to support the deal but added, “I’m not happy we weren’t able to come to some sort of agreement.”

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Troy Carter can be reached at 582-2630 or tcarter@dailychronicle.com. He’s on Twitter at @cartertroy.

Troy Carter covers politics and county government for the Chronicle.

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