One Piece at a Time

By Beacon Staff

Along U.S. Highway 2 near Kila lies a plot of land broken up like puzzle pieces. Some pieces are owned by the state, others the federal government and more are in private hands. But now, thanks to the combined efforts of the Flathead Land Trust and a local farmer, that puzzle is preserved for future generations.

Late last month, the Flathead Land Trust celebrated the preservation of 305 acres of land near Smith Lake in Kila.

The land purchase and conservation easement is the group’s 50th land project since its inception in 1985. Executive Director Marilyn Wood said the easement preserves a significant piece of land, while maintaining part of it for traditional agricultural use.

“This ended up being a good deal for everybody involved,” Wood said. “This is one of the most critical wetland complexes in the valley. It has a lot of wildlife and a great diversity of animals.”

The land trust has worked for more than two decades preserving tracts of land in Northwest Montana.

Wood said one of the nonprofit’s largest efforts is the River to Lake Initiative, which has protected more than 5,000 acres of land along the Flathead River. The most common agreement the trust seeks is conservation easements. The easements have protected 10,452 acres of land since 1985.

The Kila-Smith Lake project started in 2010, when a local bank foreclosed on 305 acres of land adjacent to the Smith Lake Waterfowl Protection Area. Pete Wade, a local farmer, had always wanted part of the land to produce hay. Unfortunately for him, when it finally came on the market, it was out of his price range.

Although interested in selling it, the bank would only make a deal if it was for the entire plot of land. Wade was only interested in the 116 acres near his property that were prime for agricultural use. Everything else was too wet. That’s where the Flathead Land Trust comes in.

“In my point of view it was a good partnership because I couldn’t buy it all myself,” Wade said. “We all had parallel interests: we wanted to buy it and they wanted to sell.”

Farmer Pete Wade worked with the Flathead Land Trust to preserve 305 acres of land near Kila. | Photo courtesy of the Flathead Land Trust

Using nearly $250,000 from a federal grant, Wood said the land trust was able to buy the land with Wade and purchase a conservation easement on the land the farmer kept. The land trust ended up owning 189 acres, which it is currently trying to deed over to the federal government, so it can become part of the nearby waterfowl protection area.

The land will now remain open to recreationalists and preserve the landscapes that welcome visitors to the valley, Wood said.

“When people come in from the west side of the valley, that’s what they see,” she said. “It’s a good first impression.”

The acquisition was the Flathead Land Trust’s 50th project and that milestone was celebrated on Sept. 26 with a small ceremony at the Creston Fish Hatchery. Wood said the group is excited to continue future preservation work and already has a handful of projects in the works for next year.

“Our goal is to help fulfill landowners’ vision for their property,” she said.

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