Elkhorn Management Unit - History of the Crow Creek Falls

Crowfall in the Elkhorn Mountains


THE CROWN JEWEL COMES HOME


Or

“Everything you wanted to know about Crow Creek Falls but were afraid to ask”

By: Jodie Canfield, Elkhorn Coordinator 1991 - 2005
December 2004

The Crown Jewel of the Elkhorn Mountains is now a public treasure since the Helena National Forest purchased Crow Creek Falls in 2004. Until then, this spectacular waterfall sat in the middle of a 20-acre patented mining claim, surrounded by a large “roadless” portion of the Helena National Forest. How did it come to be private land and why is the purchase so noteworthy?

In 1895, Crow Creek Falls was just another pretty place. The local paper, The Townsend Messenger, published an article entitled “One Day’s Ramble” by “Little Joe”. In this article, Little Joe describes the falls: “The falls are not over twelve feet across and take the plunge from a granite cradle in a perpendicular fall of about fifty feet. Ten feet from the bottom a villainous looking rock protrudes a brawny arm into the falling water, showering into the sunlight a million sparkling gems.”

The Elkhorn Forest Reserve was permanently withdrawn (by Presidential proclamation) from the public domain in 1905. Because of the 1872 Mining Law, John Bahnsen, Arthur Church, and James Porter were able to patent the falls in 1924, essentially carving out a 20-acre private mining claim they called the Hawkeye Placer. Some locals estimate that the dozer work that made the trail drivable from Tin Cup Creek to the bench above Crow Creek was done in the late thirties; road construction essentially ended in the early forties when mining activities were stopped by fuel shortages due to WWII. But the road never reached Crow Creek Falls itself. In 1978, the Helena National Forest made a decision to close the area and the road to motorized vehicles; the old road became part of the non-motorized trail system (Trail #135).

The patented mining claim changed hands several times before it was sold to “Lynn Mining” in 1981. Robert Lynn, a Columbia Falls miner, filed for a permit from the Jefferson Valley Conservation District to divert the falls and dredge the bed of the plunge pool for placer gold under Senate Bill 310 (passed in 1975), and he requested motorized access from the Townsend Ranger District, which went on hold pending the outcome of the Conservation District decision. At that time, Congress designated a portion of the Elkhorns that included Crow Creek Falls as a wilderness study area.

In August 1981, tired of “waiting for the bureaucratic wheels to turn” Lynn improved the existing road across National Forest land to his mine at Crow Creek Falls without a permit. Lynn and his nephew Jeff were cited and later convicted on five counts of violating Forest Service regulations by a U. S. Magistrate and fined $500.

Meanwhile, in September 1981, the Jefferson Valley Conservation District approved a proposal to blast a hole three feet wide and 75 feet deep through the bedrock that forms the falls, and divert the falls into a 400-foot wooden flume, with some conditions (which were subsequently violated by Lynn) recommended by then Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks fisheries biologist Bruce Rehwinkel. Lynn used helicopters to airlift camp trailers and supplies to the site.

Lynn filed his application for yearlong motorized use of the trail in October 1981 and in March 1982, Townsend District Ranger Jerry Adelblue issued a Decision Notice to allow motorized vehicle use of the existing road for 6 months. The seasonal restrictions were designed to protect wildlife and prevent road damage. The permit was never issued to Lynn because he refused to sign it. He filed an appeal to the Regional Forester in Missoula in May 1982, which went all the way to the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, where eventually the permit conditions were deemed “reasonable”.

Jeff Lynn was issued a citation in June 1982 for illegal motorized use of the road; about the same time Lynn applied for a stream disturbance application to construct a dam on Crow Creek to produce power, and for a Forest Service permit to construct a new road the final 1,150 feet to his property. His road permit application was not considered pending resolution of the appeal on the existing road use permit.

In March 1983, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission granted a preliminary permit to Lynn to conduct a feasibility study for construction of 2 dams, seven miles of pipelines, and four electrical transmission lines. Again citing “he was tired of waiting for the bureaucratic wheels to turn”, Lynn used dynamite and heavy equipment in May 1983 to blast a new road the final 1,150 feet to the Crow Creek Falls property. At the request of the Forest Service, U.S. District Judge Paul Hatfield issued a temporary restraining order against Lynn using the existing or new road. Later in the summer, Lynn cut through the gate and drove equipment into the claim, for which he was arrested, but released on his own recognizance. He went back to the claim and proceeded with his plans. He posted the claim that “trespassers would be shot”, and fortified that warning with several dogs on chains. Lynn diverted the falls via a head gate at the top of the falls, and a hole, blasted through the adjacent rock, took the water through a wooden flume to the bottom of the property where it dumped back into the streambed. This diversion, along with a pump, allowed Lynn to dredge the streambed below the falls.

In December 1983, Lynn advertised the property in the Wall Street Journal, describing the land as “a remote hideaway…with a working gold mine and rights for hydropower development”; the price tag was $1 million. Lynn was unable to obtain the financing for his proposed hydropower feasibility study (price tag of $280,000) and had recovered only a little gold from his previous mining efforts at the falls.

The Crow Creek Falls Conservation Fund formed in January 1984, with the intention of raising money to buy the falls from Lynn. The preliminary appraisals ranged from about 20 to 50 thousand dollars, much less than the million-dollar asking price.

In January 1985, Judge Paul Hatfield sentenced Lynn and ordered him to pay $7,138 in restitution for the illegally constructed road. Meanwhile, the state permit to divert the stream ran out without Lynn finding enough gold to make anyone buy the claim from him. He forfeited the $5,000 bond he had posted. The feasibility permit for the hydropower plan also expired. It was reported in 1989 that Bob Lynn was living in Missoula eating out of garbage cans. He had not paid a penny toward the $7,183 restitution

In 1995, after a decade of sitting idle and littered with trash, camp trailers and heavy equipment, Bill Walker and Marty Heller, Helena real estate agents who owned a 5/10 undivided interest in the Crow Creek Falls mining claim, opened negotiations with the Forest Service to purchase their half. However, the remainder of the title was so clouded with owners, and the price tag so far from preliminary appraisal value, it was impossible for the Forest Service to make headway. The equipment was advertised as “yours” if you could remove it. Crow Creek Falls

During the period between 1996 and 2000, access into the private land was once again the subject of letters and Congressional inquiries, and threats of legal action. In 1997, Duane Carter, an engineer from Helena who collected old mining equipment, was given preliminary approval by the landowners and the Townsend Ranger District to remove the equipment on the existing road provided he could get the equipment running well enough to make the 6.5-mile journey. Also during that period (1998), a group of teens spent a winter at Crow Creek Falls as part of their rehabilitation through the Aspen Youth Alternative (AYA) program. They cleaned up garbage and burned what they could of the camp trailers.

The scenery shifted somewhat at the falls with the camp trailers gone and minor movements of the old equipment. People visited the falls, no longer posted against trespassers, to see the water falling majestically over rock, and shook their heads at the littered remains of an unsuccessful mining venture.

In 2000, after some members of the Lynn family had passed away, Bill Walker was able to purchase their half of Crow Creek Falls; once again Crow Creek Falls was listed for sale at $300,000. Once again the price tag made negotiations with the Forest Service difficult and the process appeared to be endlessly stalemated.

What happened next changed the fate of Crow Creek Falls forever. Mitch Godfrey, an investment banker living in the Townsend area, was fishing Crow Creek when he came upon the ravaged falls property. He mentioned his chagrin to Ernie Nunn, retired Helena Forest Supervisor and owner of the Silos Bar and Restaurant. Ernie introduced Mitch to Butch Marita, a retired Forest Service Regional Forester and part time Townsend resident. Butch was also a board member of a group called the American Land Conservancy, a non-profit group specializing in conservation solutions to threatened land and water. With some help from County Attorney John Flynn, and Lynn Robson, a Helena businesswoman, they formed the Crow Creek Falls Citizen’s Group, whose goal was to clean up the falls and turn it over to the Forest Service.

On a hot summer day in 2001, an assemblage of horses and riders, including Harriet Burgess, President of the American Land Conservancy (ALC) in San Francisco, rode to Crow Creek Falls across the ridges and creeks of the Elkhorn Mountains from Eagle Guard Station. Both the members of the Citizen’s Group and the Forest Service employees on that fateful ride hoped that Harriet might fall in love with the Elkhorn Mountains and its most renowned waterfall.

It turned out that Harriet did love waterfalls, and in under a year (relatively lightening speed considering the history of Crow Creek Falls) ALC, purchased the Hawkeye Placer, and its crown jewel, Crow Creek Falls for $150,000 on April 15, 2002.

Before opening negotiations with the Forest Service, the Crow Creek Falls Group and ALC were wise enough to know that a private entity could undertake the difficult operation of cleaning up the property with much more efficiency than a government agency.

After determining that a helicopter operation with the Montana Air National Guard was not feasible, ALC applied for a road use permit from the Forest Service to use motorized equipment to access the property and remove the equipment. The Townsend Ranger District solicited public comments and signed a Decision in August 2002, to allow short-term motorized access, but only through October 27 to avoid conflict with the general big game hunting season and wet road conditions.

When the call to clean up Crow Creek Falls was out, many groups and people came forward to help. Dick Juntunen (private consultant), the Montana Mining Association, Graymont Western US Inc. of Townsend, Montana Power and Equipment, Quarry Services, and Broadwater County contributed the equipment and labor, estimated at over $40,000, needed to reclaim the property.

In early September, the operation began. Getting to the falls was the easy part of the project. Forest Service employees Beth Ihle and Jodie Canfield nervously trailed Dick Juntunen, a private contractor, as he graded and widened portions of the old road that had been managed as “Trail 135” for over 20 years to make way for removal of the old mining equipment. Butch Marita and Elton Chorney (Graymont) trimmed overhanging tree branches as they walked behind the dozer.

Getting stuff out of the falls was the difficult part of the project. The final quarter mile to the falls consists of a 35% grade on a shale-strewn slope. Working up and down this grade took both intestinal fortitude as well as temporary insanity. Dick Juntunen, John Hinther (Graymont) and Steve Heitschmidt (Graymont) provided much of the brain and brawn for this risky operation.

Duane Carter returned to try and complete his seven-year task of firing up any or all of the equipment that included a 1943 D-6 bulldozer, an Allis Chalmers crawler-loader, and a decrepit crane or dragline. He managed to get the D-6 started, and towed by the newer dozer, Carter rode the D-6 up the hill without a clutch and with water spurting out of holes in the radiator. It took an excavator in front and a dozer pushing from the back to haul the 10-ton crawler-loader up the slippery slope. By nightfall, two of the three pieces of old equipment sat in a meadow, and the following day they were loaded onto lowboys and driven out. The remainder of the operation included cutting up and burying the crane and reshaping the disturbed ground. Forest Service employees helped clean up garbage and remove contaminated soil. Beth Ihle and Ernie Nunn helped to feed the group with barbeque, peach pie and Dutch oven burgers.

At the end of two weeks, Dick Juntunen drove the excavator out pulling the road to trail width on this final motorized journey from the falls, as Jodie Canfield and Beth Ihle followed behind spreading native grass and flower seeds in his wake. With a sordid history of over 20 years, it took only two weeks to free Crow Creek Falls from its past and to transform a junkyard to a site with a future of family picnics. For their clean-up efforts, the Crow Creek Falls Citizen’s Group and other volunteers received the 2003 Wildlife Conservation Award from the Montana Chapter of the Wildlife Society.

Crow Creek Falls in the winter
Crow Creek in the winter.

The final chapter of this long story concludes successfully, although it seemed long and drawn out compared to the cleanup effort. The Helena National Forest asked for the Land and Water Conservation Funds (LWCF) to purchase the Hawkeye Placer, but with reductions in LWCF nationwide, and other higher Regional priorities, several attempts between 2002 and 2004 failed.

With the successful establishment of the Montana Fish and Wildlife Conservation Trust (proceeds from the sale of federally leased cabin sites on Canyon Ferry Reservoir), the Crow Creek Falls Group submitted a proposal for $150,000 from the first round of Trust grants. Meanwhile, a priority LWCF project on another National Forest fell through, leaving $75,000 on the table for the Northern Region to use on a lands purchase. It was a simple decision for Forest Service Lands Specialists Ron Erickson (Missoula) and Sharlene LaRance (Helena) to earmark the money for Crow Creek Falls. The Trust granted $75,000 and in the summer of 2004, the Helena National Forest purchased Crow Creek Falls from the American Land Conservancy.

The celebration and awards ceremony commemorating the inclusion of Crow Creek Falls as part of the Helena National Forest was held on October 22, 2004 at the Townsend Ranger District office and included a hike into the falls with Helena Forest Supervisor Tom Clifford and Regional Forester Gail Kimball. Clifford, who retired in December 2004, remarked that he was pleased that the conclusion of the lengthy Crow Creek Falls story happened “on his watch”.

So as the story ends, people visit the falls not only to witness the water falling majestically over the rock, but also to turn in a full circle and smile at the adjacent scenery on their public lands.