The proposed protection of land and water in Whitefish’s Haskill Basin has been ranked as the top priority for the U.S. Forest Service’s working forest conservation project.
The Forest Service ranks such projects for funding through its Forest Legacy Program, which awards grants to states to purchase permanent conservation easements and other property interests that protect forest land resources.
With its No. 1 spot, the Haskill Basin Watershed Project is slated to receive $7 million in Legacy Project funding.
The project seeks to protect more than 3,000 acres in Haskill Basin near Whitefish. The property, owned by the F.H. Stoltze Land and Lumber Co. and located beside Whitefish Mountain Resort on Big Mountain, is highly vulnerable to the pressures of development, proponents of the easement say, and is the source of 75 percent of the municipal water supply in Whitefish.
It is also home to grizzly bears, Canada lynx, and westslope cutthroat trout, and is popular for hiking, mountain biking, hunting, horseback riding, and Nordic skiing.
Last year, Stoltze and the Trust for Public Land, a nonprofit land conservation organization, reached a deal that would keep the land permanently protected for water, wildlife and recreation uses, while still allowing Stoltze’s sustainable timber management to continue.
Deb Love, the Northern Rockies director for TPL, said the top ranking will give the project a significant boost toward raising the $17 million needed to buy the development rights from Stoltze by the end of 2015.
“We feel really confident that this $7 million will be secured,” Love said. “We’re in as good of a spot as we can be.”
In years past, Love said the Legacy Project tended to receive funding from the top down, until it ran out of money. To be eligible for the program, the parcel of land must meet a host of requirements – the landowner must be willing to sell the land, the parcel must be in an environmentally important forest that is threatened by development, the property must be more than 5 acres and must have an approved forest management plan.
“This is the first time I’ve ever been involved in a project that received the number one ranking,” Love said.
There were a total of 44 projects considered for the Legacy Project funding, and the Haskill Basin project outpaced the rest in terms of funding, with the Clagstone Meadows project in Idaho getting the second-highest amount at $5.5 million.
Haskill Basin’s spot as the highest priority project is part of the Forest Service’s budget for Fiscal Year 2015, which was sent to Congress last week. Love said she is confident the project would receive the funds, but it will have to go through the congressional process before TPL knows for sure.
Otherwise, TPL will focus on other fundraising efforts, she said, including applying for other public funds, such as federal funding through the Habitat Conservation Plan, which provides funding for endangered species habitat protection through the Endangered Species Act.
Love said there will also be an effort to explore local public funding options with the City of Whitefish, as well as private fundraising efforts.
The project has support from Montana’s congressional delegation, as well as Whitefish’s mayor and city council.
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