The Alberton Gorge

The Alberton Gorge, situated along the Clark Fork River in Mineral County remains one of western Montana’s priceless natural treasures, as wild and beautiful as it has been since it was carved by the cataclysmic floods draining Glacial Lake Missoula 10,000 years ago. In 2004, Five Valleys Land Trust played a key role in assuring that the Gorge will remain just that way. That’s when Five Valleys facilitated the public acquisition of eight miles of the Clark Fork River corridor, the culmination of a fifteen-­‐year effort by a consortium of state and federal agencies, conservation groups, and whitewater enthusiasts.

Every summer, more than 30,000 adventurers find their way to the sheer-­‐walled canyon to challenge its daunting rapids in rafts and kayaks. Others seek the solitude and beauty of the shadowy canyon on foot. And still others know that native cutthroat and bull trout lurk in the deep pools and eddies of the gorge.

Not simply a recreational treasure, the timbered slopes and remote location of the deep canyon offer habitat for many wildlife species. Its purple cliffs harbor falcon aeries. And it guards a vital undeveloped link for wildlife to move back and forth from the Northern Continental Divide ecosystem to the vast wild lands of the Selway-­‐Bitterroot and beyond.

The effort to protect the Gorge began in the early 1990s when local whitewater enthusiasts, state and federal agencies and the Montana Power Company joined with Five Valleys to find a way to protect this incredible resource from residential development along its scenic corridor. The key lands in the Gorge belonged to Montana Power. River Network, a national conservation organization, soon joined the discussion and took the lead, entering into a purchase agreement with the power company for the Gorge lands in 1998. Later, Northwest Energy purchased Montana Power and in 2003, River Network requested that Five Valleys assume the lead in the Gorge project.

Five Valleys agreed and for the ensuing twelve months worked to secure the necessary funding to acquire the NorthWestern Energy lands, while working out details of a complex land exchange that made it possible. On November 30, 2004, the acquisition was completed and the Gorge lands were transferred to Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks.

Five Valleys did not have the luxury of celebrating too long. As part of the exchange, Five Valleys acquired environmentally sensitive land near Tarkio, and agreed to enter into a second land exchange with Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation to protect the Tarkio lands and make certain lands further downstream along the Clark Fork corridor available for private ownership. This allowed Mineral County to maintain its private land tax base while also providing an opportunity for Five Valleys to retire the debt incurred to purchase the Gorge.

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