Montana/Dakotas

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Cooperative Efforts Improve Public Access 
and Facilities at Payola Reservoir

story and photos by Craig Flentie, Lewistown Field Office

Payola Shelter

The newly constructed picnic shelter at Payola Reservoir. 
BLM employee working on roof

Loyd Bantz steadies the new shelter.

BLM employee builds picnic table

Mona Driskell puts the torque on a picnic table.

BLM employee building the shelter

Mike Barrick installs an end cap on the shelter.

Payola Reservoir sign

The Payola Reservoir sign overlooking the picnic shelter.

Payola Reservoir covers a little over three surface acres of public land in a deep coulee about eight miles northwest of Winnett, Mont.

It’s a welcome oasis for recreationists in an otherwise dry, wind-swept, sage brush environment -- a landscape that lends itself mostly to critters like cattle, antelope, sage grouse, and sharp-tailed grouse. It’s also rumored that Payola holds a pretty good yellow perch population (however, this fisherman has not been able to confirm such hearsay).

Over the course of any year, recreationists from as far away as Missoula and Billings as well as the more local folks make their way to Payola Reservoir for a little rest and relaxation.

For years, those recreationists have found their way to Payola by turning off a county road (Cemetery Road) and bouncing over about a mile of rough, rutted two-track trail across private land before reaching another mile of rough, rutted two-track trail on public land. The private landowner has been very good about allowing the public to cross his property; however he is not interested in selling or allowing the BLM a right of way as a means of ensuring continued public access.  

There is no immediate indication that this access situation will change. However, land managing agencies have learned (just as quickly as the public) that few opportunities can change as quickly as unsecured public access across private property.

In response, the Lewistown Field Office has increased its efforts to secure public access to public resources. Obtaining rights–of-way, completing land exchanges with willing landowners, and building new access routes entirely across public lands are the most common means of reaching this goal.   

As it turns out, Payola Reservoir sits on a parcel of public land that lends itself to a new access route built entirely across public land. The Lewistown FO penciled out the route on a map; stood back to have a look and consider the need; and then decided to move forward with the concept. Plans began taking shape for an excavated/crowned and environmentally sound graveled road that would allow year-round public access.

As with many good ideas for improvements on public land, the pathway between concept and implementation is a perilous journey. Every potential improvement has to survive numerous priority-setting exercises, the planning process, funding requests, and then contracting or scheduling the Lewistown FO force account crew to complete the work. 

The idea of building this public access road seemed to prove its worth when it received a green light at every intersection. At that point, those involved with the concept and planning phases (accustomed to using pencils and computers) stepped back and the Lewistown FO force account folks (those accustomed to using scrapers and dump trucks) stepped in.

The boots soon hit the ground.

It didn’t take long for Fred Roberts, Loyd Bantz, Ed Bradley, Mike Sweeney and Dwight Martin (from the Malta Field Office) to stake the new road location; move in the heavy equipment; and begin moving dirt.  In a matter of days, a newly excavated/crowned road was snaking north across public land toward Payola Reservoir. 

Throughout this project, several cooperators were very helpful and lent their full assistance. From the onset, the Lewistown FO was able to borrow a scraper and a large dump truck from the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge. Another dump truck came from the BLM’s Butte Field Office. And, when the road base was nearly finished, the BLM was able to purchase gravel for surfacing the road from Petroleum County at a very competitive price. Without this kind of help, these remote projects would certainly be less feasible.

When it was time to gravel the road surface, Mike Sweeney and Ronnie Hayes drove the dump trucks between the gravel quarry and the site while Ed Bradley stayed on site to spread the material and shape the road surface with a grader. The end result is a new public access road (about 1.7 miles long) to Payola Reservoir that should be maintenance-free for years to come.

The Lewistown FO also found a few dollars to make some noticeable improvements at the reservoir site. Previously, recreationists would park on a user-created, pounded out flat with no shade, and walk through the grass to the edge of the reservoir. Now they are greeted with two concrete picnic tables, three fire rings, a rocked surface, and a shelter fenced to exclude livestock.

Loyd Bantz, Mike Barrick, Aurora Northerner and Mona Driskell were meticulous in their work while installing the improvements. You’ll never find a better built shelter or more level picnic tables.

“We would also like to acknowledge a landowner and his family who live about two miles south east of Payola Reservoir on the Cemetery Road. We went by their house countless times with dump trucks and a variety of equipment and every trip created dust and noise, but they never expressed any frustration with our effort. They stopped and waved every time we went by. We appreciate their patience,” offered Lewistown FO force account crew member Mike Sweeney.

This project has been a real cooperative effort that involved many. The new access road to Payola will provide public access for generations to come and the improved recreational facilities will make every visit a more pleasant experience. Now, if someone could show me how to catch a perch, all would be well!

The Lewistown FO would like to say thanks again to all those involved with this effort.