More than 7,000 acres of forestland north of Whitefish is being permanently protected thanks to a public-private partnership devoted to sustainable forest management, public access for recreation and habitat conservation.
The Trust for Public Land, in partnership with the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) and Montana Department of Natural Resources & Conservation (DNRC), has announced the conservation of 7,018 acres of forestland east of U.S. Highway 93 near Olney. The groups worked together to acquire the land and a conservation easement that will permanently restrict commercial and residential development, protect important fish and wildlife habitat, ensure sustainable forest management, and secure public access for recreation.
The land, spanning nearly 11 square miles, will be added to Stillwater State Forest, the largest state forest in Montana with more than 90,000 acres.
A series of transactions and the support of Montana’s congressional delegation made this significant conservation achievement possible. The Trust for Public Land purchased the property from Weyerhaeuser and FWP purchased a conservation easement on the property to ensure it will be permanently managed for sustainable forestry and natural resource benefits. DNRC bought the conservation easement encumbered property from The Trust for Public Land.
In one of the fastest growing regions in the Northern Rockies, this conservation project protects local forestry jobs, clean water, public access for outdoor recreation and important habitat for fish and wildlife, including grizzly bears, Canada lynx, and westslope cutthroat trout.
“Completion of this conservation easement project has taken the hard work and dedication of many partners, and FWP is thrilled to have been a part of conserving this critical piece of fish and wildlife habitat in perpetuity while also ensuring sustainable forest management and public access into the future,” said Kris Tempel, Resource Specialist with FWP in Region One.
The agreement represents the successful completion of the first phase of the multi-phased Whitefish Lake Watershed Project, which encompasses a 13,398-acre block of forestland surrounded on three sides by Stillwater State Forest. The first phase focuses on the Lazy Creek portion of the property.
“The Trust Land Management Division of DNRC is excited to re-purpose land banking funds generated from the sale of isolated, low-performing tracts to bring this property back into state ownership,” said Shawn Thomas, Trust Lands Division Administrator. “These lands, which include some of the most productive timberland in the state, were originally granted to Montana’s trust beneficiaries by Congress in the late 1800s and were subsequently sold to private interests in the early 1900s. This acquisition is truly a treasure returned to the state trust and the public who will enjoy it.”
State, federal and private partners jointly funded the $15.5 million conservation easement. Federal funding from the Land and Water Conservation Fund was provided to the project through the USDA Forest Legacy Program and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Cooperative Endangered Species Conservation Fund program. The Land and Water Conservation Fund uses a small fraction of revenues generated from offshore oil and gas royalty payments to protect and enhance outdoor recreation and natural resources; it is not supported with general taxpayer dollars.
“The Service is proud to support this project that connects over 5 million acres of public lands in the iconic Crown of the Continent,” said Noreen Walsh, Mountain-Prairie Regional Director for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “This remarkable land provides important habitat for a variety of fish and wildlife and protects waters that are critical for Whitefish’s water supply. This acquisition ensures permanent protection for one of the last remaining unprotected habitats in this unparalleled landscape, will create additional recreational activities for the public, ensure sustainable forest management, and maintain the area’s proud tradition of working lands.”
The Forest Legacy Program is ideally suited to projects such as this. The program was established by Congress in 1990 to protect environmentally important forestlands that are threatened by conversion to non-forest uses.
“The project is an excellent example of how the program can help maintain productive working forests, which helps the local economies, conserves valuable wildlife habitat, protects water quality and provides public recreation opportunities,” said Janet Valle, U.S. Forest Service, Forest Legacy Regional Program Manager.
Additional partners include the Montana Fish & Wildlife Conservation Trust, established by Congress to conserve fish and wildlife habitat and promote public access, and FWPs’ Habitat Montana program which is funded by hunter license dollars and used to protect vital wildlife habitat.
Philanthropic support was provided by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation through Walmart’s Acres for America Program, the Whitefish Community Foundation and several individuals.
The project was strongly supported by Montana U.S. Senators Jon Tester (D) and Steve Daines (R).
Senator Jon Tester, D-MT, added, “This project increases public access to public lands, allows for responsible timber harvest, protects wildlife, helps bolster the local economy, and provides clean water to folks across Northwest Montana. It’s a win-win-win-win-win. That’s why I’m fighting to permanently reauthorize and fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund, because it makes projects like this possible.”
“It’s good to see federal, state, and private partners come together to protect public access and timber management,” said Senator Steve Daines, R-MT.
This story and more news releases may be found at www.fwp.mt.gov