STEVENSVILLE - It’s considered the birthplace of Montana, a ranch that’s operated for 167 years.
But more recently it’s been a source of controversy, an example of the struggle between public appreciation and the freedom of owning a piece of Montana.
It’s one of the smallest units in the Montana State Park’s system. A single acre where Montana’s modern history began and where today the conflict between public and private interests are grinding against each other.
Access has always been a question at Fort Owen with the historical site located right in the middle of a working cattle ranch.
But the new owner, Myla Yahraus, said she recognizes the importance and legacy of the place to not only the Bitterroot but the entire state.
“Well, I’ve gotten a few books on the history of Stevensville and Fort Owen recently," Yahraus said. "And I was learning a little bit more about John Owen himself. And he seemed to be quite the entrepreneur, but also very conscious about the community and others, the Indians and everything. And I admire the guy.”
At a Stevensville press conference, Yahrus, a successful Las Vegas businesswoman, was introduced as the new owner of the Fort Owen Ranch, getting a warm welcome from Mayor Jim Crews and other community leaders.
“From the very beginning our community, Fort Owen and the environs, the ranch, all of that, have been the centerpiece,” Yahrus said.
The “fresh start” comes after a year of turmoil. Fed up with uncontrolled partying, long-time owners the Capp Family closed off the informal access at the Bitterroot River.
Yahrus wants to resolve those problems but complimented the family for their stewardship.
“The riverfront is in pristine condition," she said. "The Burnt Fork Creek is clean and clear and the pastures are healthy.”
Yahrus plans to keep the historic land as a working cattle ranch, with possible additions like crops to be considered.
“Most of it is natural grass now," said Ranch Manager Kent Smartt. "We’ll look at soil types and maybe looking to do some creative things in the future.”
And while this is a new chapter for the ranch, Yahrus is also clear the community and state agencies should come to the table with workable solutions.
“If the best location to launch watercraft is from the river frontage that is owned by the ranch there needs to be proper development of the site in order to protect the integrity of the property.”
“I want to be clear that I’m a strong advocate of private property rights and I believe they should be respected. I believe that everything we have is on loan from God to be used, but not abused.”
Yahrus will take possession of the Fort Owen ranch Jan. 1.
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