The news business is odd. Some days it takes more time than others to separate the gossip from the news, and despite what they teach in journalism school, the difference often comes down to who’s spreading it and how much money is at stake. Ordinarily, the following story might not pass editorial muster. Arising as it does, however, in the midst of a fiercely contested U.S. Senate race and involving discussions of 11th-hour federal budget appropriations to the tune of some $39 million for Fort Missoula—none of which has undergone a lick of public scrutiny or discussion—perhaps it warrants a few column inches of our attention.
The story first surfaced after Mayor Mike Kadas attended a Sept. 20 meeting of the Missoula Chamber of Commerce and learned that a group of local businessmen, citizens and land-use professionals calling itself the Missoula Trust is trying to drum up letters of support for something called the Center for Wildland Stewardship and Forest Health at Fort Missoula. The Missoula Trust, led by self-described political gadfly Jim Carkulis, claims that it’s been working with Sen. Conrad Burns for the last three to six months to secure a $39 million federal appropriation for this Center, which would “provide the research, solutions, consensus building and long-term monitoring of protocols for sustainable forests,” according to the group’s pamphlet.
The idea for the Center, says Carkulis, arose out of a plan to locate a wildland firefighter training center at Fort Missoula, an idea, he says “that just snowballed.” Soon, other proposals for studying and managing forest health got incorporated into the mix, such as an educational program in fire management and restoration forestry for Missoula secondary schools and the University of Montana, a plan to certify local timber mills and woodworkers to help them “reap the benefits of year-round restoration forestry,” and other research, job training and monitoring projects.
“The U.S Forest Service cannot continue to endure the legal challenges raised by both industry and environmentalists,” the Missoula Trust pamphlet reads. “Only impartial, third-party validation of procedures will be accepted in today’s social and political climate.”
Eventually, Carkulis’ plan for the Center began to incorporate other opportunities for land at Fort Missoula. Carkulis told the City Council’s Conservation Committee last week that funding for the Center would help jump start other transactions, such as a $4 million appropriation for the development of softball and soccer fields on city-owned land at the fort and $40,000 for a permanent home for the Native American Students’ Prayer Retreat.
In addition, it is hoped that a series of strategic land swaps would allow several entities—namely, the City of Missoula, Missoula County Public Schools and the University of Montana—to readjust the mosaic of land ownership at the fort and elsewhere in town. For example, two parcels of land currently owned by UM could be swapped for land owned by Missoula County Public Schools and used for the schools’ vocational agriculture program. In return, the school district would provide the city with about 20 acres of land adjacent to an 80-acre parcel already owned by the city along South Avenue to serve as a regional sports park.
In addition, the University could move the College of Technology from its South Avenue campus to the fort. Other land swaps involving Missoula County, the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation and the federal government, are also in the wind, all of which, it is hoped, will make Fort Missoula a major tourist destination in time for the bicentennial celebration of Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery mission.
Most importantly, the Missoula Trust folks are hoping that these land deals will allow the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation to secure a home at Fort Missoula after all. As you may recall, plans for the Elk Foundation to relocate to a 16-acre triangular parcel of land owned at the Fort by the City fell through after legal questions arose about the sale.
“From what we’ve seen it’s an interesting proposal,” says Gary Wolfe, president of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF). “It looks like it offers a whole variety of benefits, a real win-win proposal.”
Wolfe says that while the Elk Foundation is not driving this particular proposal, it is “very aggressively” exploring other options for relocating and enlarging its headquarters in the Missoula area. He says RMEF has received at least six inquiries from communities outside of Missoula and Montana. Although none of those proposals has yet been formally entertained, Wolfe says that no options have been ruled out.
“We’d certainly like to stay in Missoula. That’s our preference and our desire,” says Wolfe. “The reality is, though, that we’re a charitable, nonprofit organization and if another community comes up with a proposal that has some real financial benefits to the organization, we’ll certainly be obliged to take a serious look at it.”
The question then arises as to whether the folks at Fort Missoula are even interested in the Elk Foundation relocating there. Wolfe anticipates that RMEF will need a 60,000 square-foot building to house its offices and visitor center for the next 25 to 40 years, plus an additional 20,000 square-foot warehouse, with the option of being able to expand at a later date. A project of this scope, says Save the Fort President David McEwen, wouldn’t necessarily fit in with the nature and character of the existing buildings.
“One day Fort Missoula will be like [New York’s] Central Park. You don’t see large corporate headquarters in the middle of Central Park,” McEwen says. “If you put a 90,000 square-foot building in the middle of that open space, then what’s next? It sets a precedent we may not want to set.”
Other questions remain to be answered about this deal, not the least of which is: where has the public been in a planning process that will involve at least a half-dozen city, county, state and federal entities? What strings are attached to those federal dollars if they are appropriated? And what entity will that appropriation be granted to? Needless to say, even those who think this plan has a lot of promise express some skepticism.
“If it works, I can see all kinds of benefits,” says Mayor Kadas. “But because it is so dependent upon it happening in the next week or two before Congress adjourns, I certainly don’t want to get people’s hopes up for it.”
As for Montana’s congressional delegation, Carkulis insists that Rep. Rick Hill, Sen. Max Baucus and Sen. Conrad Burns are all on the same page on this proposal, which he claims amounts to 40-45 line items in the current budget. A spokesman for Hill told the Independent that while he’s aware that some appropriation for this project was discussed in the past, he hasn’t heard anything about it recently.
What does Sen. Burns, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee and the man who stands to reap the most political mileage from such a sweet election-year deal, have to say about it? According to Burns aide Ryan Thomas, the senator is already working to secure money for at least three other projects dealing with forest and wildfire issues, including a $600,000 appropriation to launch the Center for Landscape Fire Analysis, part of a $6 million project in the works for the last three years. Other more modest budget items include a wildfire conference center for Forest Service Region One headquarters and a relief fund for victims of this summer’s fires. But as for the Missoula Trust deal, Thomas doesn’t sound very encouraging.
“Carkulis has really blown this out of proportion,” Thomas says. “His latest figures are up to $56 million. There’s no way you’re going to get a $56 million center at this point in time.”
Thomas does note that Burns is not dismissing the Fort Missoula plan out of hand, saying Burns is interested in working with the community to keep the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation in Missoula. That said, Thomas says Burns isn’t interested in backing any proposal that doesn’t already enjoy widespread community support.
“The odds of getting this money this year are slim and none,” Thomas says. “And considering that we just filed our report, slim just jumped out the window.”
So, what remains of the best-laid plan for Fort Missoula that seems too good to be true? Apparently, a few really good ideas, and a whole lot of wishful thinking.