Big bucks in the Big Hole

An exclusive development is planned along the Big Hole and Beaverhead Rivers

July 05, 2001

First it was the Bitterroot Valley that attracted the super rich. Then the Stock Farm, a gated enclave marketed to the trophy-home crowd, was built by stockbroker Charles Schwab on ranch land once owned by the 19th century copper baron Marcus Daly.

Now the wealthy are making eyes at the Big Hole River Valley, the last of the last best places, a high and wild spot other Montanans only dream about while stuck in commuter traffic.

Two land developers, a Missoulian and a Floridian, have teamed up on a resort project called the Silver Bow Club, another jet-set getaway ranging along the Big Hole and Beaverhead rivers.

Stuart Decker, president of the Big Hole River Association, has been working with developers Jim Toth, owner of Grizzly Hackle in Missoula, and his partner, David Pepe, a land developer from south Florida, to modify some aspects of the project the Foundation finds worrisome.

Decker says he’s “tremendously familiar” with the 3,800-acre project. “Between the two of them,” he says of the development partners, “they’re thinking of something like the [Bitterroot Valley’s] Stock Farm.”

Seventeen hundred acres of the Silver Bow Club, according to Decker, lie on some three miles of river front on the west side of the Big Hole River, a half-mile downstream from the Divide fishing access site. The remaining acreage lies on the Beaverhead River south of Twin Bridges. It is the Big Hole property that will be developed, however, with the Beaverhead property remaining as open space.

Twenty-two home sites near the Big Hole River will be for sale for $3 million per lot. That will get you a one- or two-acre lot, membership in the Silver Bow Club, prime access to Montana’s famed blue-ribbon trout stream and access to upland game bird hunting grounds on the Beaverhead. The annual membership fee will run another $60,000. There also will be a 12,000- to 15,000-acre foot lodge on the property.

“It’s an everything-but-the-gate gated community,” says Decker. “This is the beginning of a big shift in land development in the Big Hole River Valley.”

The discovery of the Big Hole by the monied class should come as no surprise. It is, after all, the epitome of Big Sky Country and all those other worn-out cliches. But that doesn’t mean the ranching class has to like it.

The social changes that an exclusive, multi-million-dollar fishing resort built around the humble trout will bring to the Big Hole Valley should be immense. For one thing, says Decker, the property will no longer be open to local hunters, as it has been previously.

But a spokesman for the Silver Bow Club says the developers are sensitive to the culture of the Big Hole and won’t do anything to upset its “cows and hayfields” way of life. Most of the property —95 percent of it—will be protected from further development by a conservation easement. The spokesman, who asked that he not be named, says that Toth and Pepe bought six separate and adjoining pieces of land from which they created two ranches: the Big Hole Ranch and the Beaverhead Ranch.

According to the plans the homes will not be visible from Interstate 15 – the nearest road – and will be shielded from the river by willows the developers intend to plant.

“These guys are fly-fishermen and they don’t want to be looking at a bunch of homes,” says the spokesman. Though the development will create a significant shift in land-use practices, Big Hole ranchers and anglers are a step ahead of their fellow Montanans when it comes to preparing for change. As they should be, given all the examples they’ve seen of what not to do in other parts of Montana and the west. From Aspen and Vail to Jackson Hole and the Stock Farm, the west is littered with residential developments so exclusive that the worker bees have been driven out.

It’s an old story, but not in the Big Hole, which, because of its remoteness, cold winters, ferocious mosquitoes and notable lack of a good wine selection, has never really been in danger of development.

Until now, that is. Decker says the Big Hole River Foundation, which works to protect and preserve the river and its fishery, has, in years past, made comrades of the local ranchers. Conservationists and ranchers long ago identified a common enemy in various unpopular federal rules, and have learned to team up as partners in land management decisions, rather than glare at each other from opposite sides of the fence. When Toth and Pepe came to call, a united Big Hole stood ready to receive them, says Decker.

That’s not to suggest that the project got off to a hostile start, however. Change is inevitable, says Decker, and though some folks still harbor a gut-shoot-‘em-at-the-border mentality, the Big Hole River Foundation and ranchers know that change can best be dealt with by directing it. Trying to stop it outright would be an exercise in futility.

Decker says his group, which includes fly fishing outfitters and ranchers, has worked cooperatively with the Silver Bow Club’s developers to make changes that the Foundation believes are necessary if the Big Hole is to retain its unique character.

For instance, building height and set back restrictions have been agreed on. One home site is 300 to 400 feet from the river; the rest are set back on a bench. Lighting will be restricted to keep the river from blazing like the great white way. City-grade sewer and water lines will protect water quality.

But there are two projects the Foundation could not convince the developers to change, Decker says. Toth and Pepe have proposed three or four ponds on the property. The Foundation disapproves of the ponds because they’ll be stocked with trout taken from a commercial hatchery. (State law prohibits stocking ponds with trout taken from nearby rivers, what Decker calls “bucket biology.”) Whirling disease, a condition fatal to trout, already exists in the Big Hole, though the trout appear to be asymptomatic. No one knows for sure where whirling disease comes from, but some suspect that it might originate in fish hatcheries, says Decker. If so, the Foundation worries that the whirling disease pathogen could be transported to the ponds by hatchery trout and find its way via water that flows to the river.

The Foundation also worries that a 5,000-square foot “occasional use cabin” planned for a site “smack dab in the middle of winter elk range” will alter elk migration patterns.

Ponds and elk are powerful draws and good marketing tools, however. Thus far the developers haven’t said yes or no to the Foundation’s pleas to eliminate the ponds or close the cabin from Dec. 1 to May 15, as the Forest Service does with adjacent elk habitat.

While a residential development too exclusive for Big Hole ranchers and outfitters might not be a local’s idea of a good thing, Decker says its developers have been open and responsive to the Foundation. And because both developers themselves plan to live at the Silver Bow Club for at least part of the year, he thinks they’ll fit in to the community and be sensitive to local concerns.

“They’ve agreed to allow us to be part of the conversation,” he says. “There’s a real opportunity for them to be good neighbors.”

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