The culvert that may have inspired the dredging. PHOTO BY JANA BOUNDS

Wetland destruction on Andesite Rd.

Multi-dimensional problems for wetland owner

Deep trenches weave through wetlands off of Andesite Rd on lots 3 and 4 of the Northfork Creek Subdivision. Until recently, the offending mini excavator was highly visible as well – stuck in the bog-like earth. Small neon Big Sky County Water and Sewer (BSCWS) flags waved in the breeze as BSCWS general manager Ron Edwards walked the water main alignment – marked by the flags. He said the main was undisturbed since it was buried so far beneath the soil. 

Locally, the property is under Big Sky Owner’s Association (BSOA) jurisdiction and also under Big Sky Architecture Committee (BSAC) review. BSOA provides public services. Some property owners are also in the Big sky Architectural Committee review – in which changes to property including landscaping and any kind of ground disturbance would need to be approved. Owners of the property in question are in that review, BSOA executive director Suzan Scott explained. 

The property owners did not go through that committee for approval for what they are currently doing, she said.  

“BSOA is doing what it can within our regulations and policies. We were notified by a concerned neighbor of the dredging and went up there, had a conversation with the property owner and asked them to stop the dredging and the work,” Scott said. “Which they did.” 

Also locally, the Gallatin River Task Force was contacted by a concerned citizen. Big Sky Watershed Corps Member Valerie Bednarski has been tracking the issue. 

The property owner claimed he was working on a plugged culvert, Scott said. 

On the state level, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) also received a complaint on Aug. 19. 

“It has now been assigned to an enforcement specialist. This property is classified as a wetland,” DEQ public information officer Karen Ogden explained. “This area is mapped on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Wetland mapper and all wetlands are protected by the United States Federal Clean Water Act. So, most activities that disturb a wetland require permitting.” 

Ogden further explained, “So to clarify, an area with wetland characteristics in one of three areas – hydrology, soil and vegetation – can be listed on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Wetland mapper. However, a wetland must have wetland characteristics in all three areas – hydrology, soil and vegetation – to be considered for classification as a Water of the United States. Waters of the United States are protected under the Clean Water Act.”

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers handles permitting for the filling or draining of wetlands, she said. If the property owners failed to secure necessary permits from the Army Corps of Engineers, that would force this to the federal level. 

State program manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Todd Tillinger, said a freedom of information request would be needed for the release of any details of permitting or investigations regarding the property, which could not be completed by press deadline. 

Speaking to the broader purpose of the Army Corps of Engineers, he said each project is different and the entity tries to work with people and get their efforts in compliance with the Clean Water Act. 

 “They might need to build a road, stop erosion, or economic development and our goal is to see how they can achieve that purpose while minimizing impacts on the aquatic environment,” he said while further noting that the first thing property owners can do if they have a potential project is call one of the Army Corps of Engineers offices and talk to someone. Some projects exist under an umbrella of nationwide permits, which would mean the property owner could proceed without hindrance. Still, DEQ and Army Corps of Engineers officials said it is best to check. 

Scott said she was unaware of any permitting done by the property owners. 

“This is new territory for us as far as I’ve experienced. I’ve been here for eight years. I’ve never experienced a membership dredging a wetland without any kind of approval. Ultimately, [the outcome] is up to the BSAC committee to decide,” she said. 

Lot 3 is 6.93 acres and was listed for $1.6 million in Feb. 2017. Lot 4 at 5.03 acres was also listed in Feb. 2017 for $1.4 million by listing agent Lynn Milligan. The listings expired in Feb. 2018. 

An attempt to contact the property owners through BSOA was unsuccessful by press deadline. 

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