$3 Dollar Bridge Project and The Madison River Foundation
Conserving the best of Montana’s wild trout water, the Madison River’s Three Dollar Bridge Project
One cannot own a river, or even a part of it, except in one’s heart. The Madison River is in my heart and I love it. I fish the river over one hundred days a year. My favorite area of the river is the Three Dollar Bridge section. This section of the river has it all; productive pools and pockets, boulders, slicks, seams and undercut banks. The river here has the largest concentration of wild trout anywhere in the west and the trout average fifteen inches in length. Browns, rainbows and mountain whitefish are found in good numbers all along this stretch.
In July and August anglers can depend on tremendous evening caddisfly activity. Mayflies such as Baetis, Rhitrogenia, Flavs, Epeorus, Green Drakes and Pale Morning Duns all emerge in good numbers and bring on big rises of trout.
This area also has phenomenal winter midge fishing and in February anglers have great dry-fly fishing during midge emergences.
Stoneflies also emerge in good numbers all along the Three Dollar Bridge section. The Salmon Fly comes off in early July, Golden Stones closely follow, and Little Yellow Stoneflies are always on the water in July and August. Terrestrial fishing is good here too. Ants, beetles, grasshoppers and crickets furnish the best terrestrial activity year in and out.
I’ve fished this area for over thirty years and have come to know and love it greatly. But, we anglers came close to forever losing public access to the river here a few years back. Here is my story of how fly fishers from around the world stepped up and forever protected and preserved this wonderfully important piece of wild trout water.
I will never forget that phone call I received in early July of 2000. I was tying flies at my fly shop, Blue Ribbon Flies in West Yellowstone, Montana when the rancher who owned the Candlestick Ranch and Three Dollar Bridge area along the Madison River called and told me he had to sell his ranch and wondered if I knew a potential conservation buyer. He and his wife wanted to sell the place to someone who would protect and preserve the 4400 acre property with its three miles of Madison River shoreline. But, they needed money desperately as mounting medical bills were forcing them to sell quickly to anyone, real estate developers included. This would jeopardize its tradition of public fishing and the property’s important fish and wildlife habitat.
Every year anglers from around the world travel to Montana’s blue ribbon Madison River, seeking the challenge of wild trout in an unspoiled settling. Here the Madison crystal waters hold the largest concentration of wild rainbow and brown trout in Montana and are showcased against a backdrop of three mountain ranges; the Centennials, Madison, Henry’s Lake and Gravelly Mountain peaks tower on all sides. Eagles, osprey, otter, moose deer and pronghorn patrol the river corridor and trout rise to caddis and mayflies, stone flies and terrestrials like ants, beetles and grasshoppers. And, it is not uncommon for fish to trigger descriptions in pounds rather than inches. The catch-and-release regulations on this stretch of the river are responsible for an exceptional population of wild rainbow and brown trout.
Like many places on the western United States, however, change is also a fact of life in the Madison Valley. Much of the informal, old-time access has disappeared as family ranches have been subdivided and sold off. “No Trespassing” signs now appear with more frequency along this river and others in the west. Though surrounded by change, this area of the Madison River remained open to the public.
Most know this area of the Madison River as the “$3.00 Bridge Fishing Access”. The bridge spans the river about halfway between the towns of West Yellowstone and Ennis, Montana just thirty miles west of the west entrance to Yellowstone National Park. Here the river winds through the largest remaining unbroken expanse of sagebrush flats in the upper river valley. I can’t say when it got the name “Three Dollar Bridge”, maybe forty or fifty years ago. Nobody seems to know for sure, but it’s been that way as long as most local fishermen can remember.
This is a reach of river where the trout populations have withstood and recovered from the ravages of whirling disease. And for me, fishing the caddis emergence on a summer evening at Three Dollar Bridge is what the Madison River is all about. Anyone who spends much time fishing the Madison eventually finds their way to Three Dollar Bridge.
And, in 2000, when anglers arrived at the bridge they were greeted by a sign that reminded them that this was private property, where, for a fee of $3.00 they could park their vehicle and fish the river. Through war and peace, boom and bust, this fee had remained constant and fly fishers from all over the world had paid it. But now this could change if the property was sold to a developer who might close access to the public.
The Conservation Challenge
My good friend Hugh Zacheim, the then Northern Rockies Director for River Network, had been keeping a close eye on the $3.00 Bridge-Candlestick Ranch since 1996 when he’d first discussed conservation options with the owners. Hugh and I had discussed this exceptionally important piece of property and knew the seven-square miles of prime wildlife and wild trout habitat would be a very attractive location for real estate developers. The prospect of development and degradation to wild trout habitat by damaging streamside development along with the potential loss of public fishing access to the Madison River was a disturbing specter for those who had witnessed either huge “trophy homes” or a small-lot subdivision along other parts of rivers in Montana. So, when the landowners decided to sell the property we knew we had to act quickly to save it.
Fortunately, two national conservation organizations responded to the challenge at Three Dollar Bridge. River Network and Trout Unlimited stepped up to the plate. In early spring 2001 River Network completed negotiations with the landowners that set our course to a $2 million purchase of the 800 acre Madison River bottom. This parcel of property centered on the Three Dollar Bridge which included three miles of the river shoreline as well as riparian, wetland and spring creek habitats.
Initially we had to come up with $200,000.00 that would secure an exclusive purchase option for River Network. This option kept the river property off the market and provided a full two years for us to raise the remaining funds.
Trout Unlimited and River Network began partnering in the effort to protect angling and wild trout habitat opportunities at the Three Dollar Bridge property. Trout Unlimited started raising funds for the land purchase, and began efforts to restore a key spawning stream on the property along with spreading the work about this important conservation project.
Our own fly shop, Blue Ribbon Flies, began fundraising through outreach to our customers and fellow fly-fishers around the world. We put together power point slide shows and traveled to places like Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids, Michigan to New York City, San Francisco and Los Angles, California spreading the word to fly fishing groups of the need to help fund the Three Dollar Bridge section of the Madison River. We ran articles in our mail order catalogue and put up displays in our fly shops telling of the project and asking for any donations. We received huge support from fly fishers and other fly fishing businesses from all over the world.
The Three Dollar Bridge Project
The partnership of River Network, Trout Unlimited, and Blue Ribbon Flies to acquire and conserve the crucial 800- acre Madison River portion of the Candlestick Ranch became known as the “Three Dollar Bridge Project”. The goals were to conserve the three miles of Madison River corridor from development, provide permanent public fishing access to this great fly-fishing water, and enhance vital fish and wildlife habitat over the seven square-miles of critical habitat.
While we all knew that buying land is a high-stakes approach to conservation, we recognized the critical need to act quickly. None of us were willing to sit back quietly and let this property by sold to developers. All of us have seen too much of what is happening along America’s top trout streams and we all believed there was not better place to take a stand then here at Three Dollar Bridge. We were very confident that our partnership approach and working together to energize supporters across the county and from around the world of fly fishing could transform this potential crisis into a significant conservation achievement.
The Three Dollar Bridge Project also set the stage for the conservation acquisition of the 3,500 acres of the surrounding Candlestick Ranch, a broad expanse of sagebrush grasslands that represented critically important wildlife habitat for the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem. Located at the hub of four wilderness mountain ranges, the uplands are a crucial migration corridor and habitat for elk, grizzly bear, wolves, moose, pronghorn, mule deer and sage grouse. Early on in the project we were successful in enlisting the help of a private partner to acquire and conserve these valuable uplands as part of the entire project.
Our fundraising efforts continued for over a year. Funds were raised through a broad-based fundraising initiative with key players including individual donor contacts, direct mail, art print sale of a lovely painting by famous artist Richard Tumbleston, corporate outreach, foundation grants, and conservation organization partnerships. The fly fishing businesses and equipment manufactures helped sponsor and promote the project with crucial support provided by Blue Ribbon Flies, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, The Orvis Company, Wolf Creek Charitable Foundation, Tumbleston Studious, Madison-Gallatin Wild Trout Foundation, and the Nature Conservancy of Montana.
Local landowners Bob and Annie Graham stepped up and bought the 3,500 acre uplands parcel and immediately put a conservation easement on it forever protecting it as valuable wildlife habitat and migration corridor. And, Bob and Annie also helped with the river corridor piece and in the end purchased it and then resold it to River Conservancy and Trout Unlimited at well below market value. The Grahams are to be “thanked” by all anglers and sportsmen and women from around the world for their efforts to protect, preserve and enhance the upper Madison River and its valley for all future generations.
Labor of Love
In spring of 2002 the Three Dollar Bridge Fishing Access site was acquired by the State of Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks assuring fly fishers everywhere it would forever be open to the public for fly fishing and protected against harmful streamside development. The state erected a permanent sign here at the access site that reads:
“On June 27, 2002, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks acquired the Three Dollar Bridge Fishing Access Site with its three miles of Madison River frontage. The acquisition was funded by fishing license dollars and by the contributions of thousands of anglers from across the country who gave generously to ensure that this property would forever be preserved and open to the public. The effort to secure the Three Dollar Bridge Fishing Access Site was led by River Network and Trout Unlimited, with crucial support provided by Craig and Jackie Mathews of Blue Ribbon Flies, Bob and Annie Graham, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Orvis Company, Wolf Creek Charitable Foundation, Tumbleston Studious, Madison-Gallatin Wild Trout Foundation, and the Nature Conservancy of Montana. Other significant contributors include the landowners, fly shops and businesses of the Madison Valley, West Yellowstone, Ennis and nearby communities, along with many state and local conservation and fly fishing organizations. Thanks to all for the support that made possible the Three Dollar Bridge Fishing Access Site!”
Every time I fish the Madison River at Three Dollar Bridge I still stop and read the sign and feel proud to have played a part in the project!
Another reason to head for Montana’s Madison River
In 2005 my friend Alex Diekmann called and asked advice on yet another river and land protection project on the Madison River. Alex manages The Trust for Public Land’s work in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem. And, he and I had frequently discussed that besides protecting land for wildlife and wild trout, conservation projects in the Yellowstone ecosystem support a natural-amenity economy worth more that $1 billion per year to local economies. We both felt there was one more very important project in the upper Madison River Valley to complete the wild trout and wildlife corridor link between private land and the national forest and Yellowstone National Park. In 2005 Trust for Public Land brokered a pair of agreements conserving an additional 1,700 acres ensuring that one of the most important wildlife corridors in the upper Madison River area remains free of harmful development. The agreements link the national forest with the Three Dollar Bridge site and include a trail easement that guarantees public fishing access to another mile of the Madison River. This means anglers have over four continuous miles of the Madison River open to them forever.
As Alex, my friend likes to say, “so often you read about intractable environmental problems, but what is happening with protection of wild trout and wildlife corridors in the greater Yellowstone and Madison River areas is about finding win-win solutions.” We still have a lot of work to do, but Alex and I are optimistic. You have to be optimistic if you want to accomplish anything worthwhile. And I happen to think wild trout are worthwhile don’t you?