HASKILL CREEK – Navigating his pick-up truck along a narrow, two-track logging road on Haskill Basin, Chuck Roady passes through warrens of grand and alpine fir, spruce, larch and cedar, jabbing his finger out the window at the healthiest stands. He doesn’t hide his excitement.
“This is how the land looks if you manage it well,” Roady, vice president of F.H. Stoltze Land and Lumber Co., said, pointing to green swaths of forest. “We’re proud of it, and we want the public to enjoy it.”
A recent conservation deal between Stoltze and the Trust for Public Land (TPL) would guarantee the public’s enjoyment of the prime forestlands in perpetuity. The agreement, which would divest Stoltze of the development rights to 3,050 acres of its Haskill block in exchange for an as-yet undetermined monetary sum, will afford permanent protections on the landscape while allowing the century-old, family-owned timber company to manage the forest under its best-management practices, a lofty set of standards it has applied to timber harvests for decades.
Stoltze is widely recognized as an ideal steward of the land, but its Haskill property is flanked by high-ticket development projects like the Iron Horse golf course, the Lookout Ridge subdivision, the Ptarmigan Village condominiums and Whitefish Mountain Resort.
It doesn’t take a stretch of the imagination to envision Haskill Basin – home to a suite of wildlife and outdoor recreation opportunities – bristling with condos and trophy homes.
“You really could build homes everywhere up here, and we don’t want to do that,” Roady said. “We want to grow trees.”
For years, conservation groups and city officials have recognized the development pressure that could bear down on the Haskill block and, until recently, have operated under a good-faith agreement with the Stoltze family, who for more than a century has maintained its commitment to managing the parcel as a working forest, rather than leveraging it into a revenue-rich development deal.
Those with controlling interests understand what would be at stake if the development rights were sold.
“It has tremendous value for development, but our business is growing trees. That’s what we like to do. It’s what we’ve always done,” Roady said.
Turn on the tap in Whitefish and the trickle of water that springs forth likely originated from the cold, clean headwaters of Haskill Creek, which accounts for about 75 percent of Whitefish’s water supply.
“One of the bigger risks of development on these headwaters is the potential for increased sedimentation and septic leachate, which results in higher water treatment costs,” Whitefish Mayor John Muhlfeld, a hydrologist and president of River Design Group, said. “Right now we have very minimal treatment costs because the water from Haskill is clean and cold.”
Of the three intakes on Haskill Basin, only Second and Third creeks are actively supplying the city with water. The intake at First Creek, which drains Big Mountain, was essentially abandoned in the 1980s due to the presence of fecal coliform as a result of septic leachate from development, which was serviced by two sewage lagoons. The intake was taken off line, reclaimed, and is now on the Whitefish sewer system.
It serves as a specter of what might happen if Haskill Basin was similarly developed.
“I think technology has advanced and changed how we deal with that kind of surface pollution, but the concern is still there,” Muhlfeld said.
The conservation easement, announced June 19, hinges on funding, and Alex Diekmann, project manager for TPL, said the trust is working to raise money from private donors and public funding sources in order to bring the deal to fruition in 2015.
“We wouldn’t be forging ahead if we didn’t think this deal was doable,” Diekmann said, declining to divulge a price tag on the parcel until an appraisal is finalized. “We have talked about this for the past couple of years and the timing is right. This sets forth a road map for achieving this goal.”
Given the timber company’s reputation as a good neighbor, the partnership with Stoltze is ideal, he said.
Roady took over as Stoltze’s general manager in 2008, when the collapsing housing market and plummeting lumber prices combined to shadow the industry in uncertainty.
But Stoltze has endured difficult times in the past, Roady said, having lost three mills in the span of a decade, shuttering facilities in Dillon, Darby and, most recently, its aspen mill in Sigurd, Utah, which it did only after losing access to federal and private harvest lands.
Through it all, the original mill outside Columbia Falls has remained, and with the market rebounding, Stoltze has invested $6 million in a cogeneration plant, which will produce energy to heat the mill while generating steam for the kilns to dry the lumber. Electricity from the plant will be funneled to the Flathead Electric Cooperative through a power-purchase agreement.
Across the lumberyard, the green energy company Algae AquaCulture Technology has built a biorefinery on Stoltze land, using the mill’s wood waste in an innovative energy process.
Multiple generations have supported Stoltze’s legacy of innovation, and while Roady sees no sign of that changing under the current guard, he noted that there’s always the chance.
“The family has long revered themselves as responsible stewards of the land and has put its money back into the timberlands rather than selling them off for development,” he said. “But say we lose a few board members and the tenor of its leadership changes. The allure could be pretty big at some point if your great grandfather owns 40,000 acres in Whitefish, Montana and you’ve got nothing in writing.”
The conservation easement would be conveyed to the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks for long-term monitoring and enforcement, but Stoltze would continue to manage the lands under its best-practice standards. The company is certified by the American Tree Farm System, and has been since 1964.
“The only change under the agreement is you won’t see any homes or hotels or condos up here,” Roady said. “This will do nothing but promote the longevity of Stoltze. Hopefully we’ll continue this for another 100 years, long after I’m dead and gone.”
The conservation deal has also received unanimous support from Montana’s congressional delegation.
U.S. Senator Max Baucus, D-Mont., a longtime champion of collaborative conservation and legacy projects in Montana, said he continues to look for opportunities to move the ball forward at the federal level.
“This project will protect our outdoor heritage, support timber access and protect the water supply families and businesses rely upon in Whitefish,” Baucus said in a statement. “I look forward to working with Stoltze, the Trust for Public Land, and partners at every level to support this made-in-Montana conservation project.”
Baucus collaborated with U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., on the North Fork Watershed Protection Act, which would block mining and energy development in the North Fork Flathead River drainage on the western boundary of Glacier National Park. At the behest of the City of Whitefish, its protections also extend to the south end of the Whitefish Range, which includes the Haskill Creek watershed.
“F.H. Stoltze is a leader in smart resource management, and this partnership will make sure that Montanans can enjoy an important part of the Flathead for years to come,” Tester said.
A companion bill, introduced by U.S. Rep. Steve Daines, R-Mont., in the U.S. House of Representatives, has given Diekmann and Muhlfeld hope that the bipartisan support will bode well for the federal and local measures alike.
“We’ve been waiting for the right time and the right tool to make this a reality,” Diekmann said. “It benefits the ecosystem, the critters that use it, the public that uses it to recreate, and the city water supply.”
The project will require broad support from the Whitefish community in order to “protect access to these high-value public lands,” Muhlfeld said.
“As mayor, this will be one of my highest-priority projects through the duration of my term and I am hoping that at the end of the day this is a legacy project that I can put my name on, that the public can put its name on, and that the city of Whitefish can put its name on,” Muhlfeld said. “This will definitely be a priority for the rest of my tenure as mayor.”