Whitefish city officials are exploring ideas to develop a program that would help finance a land conservation easement in Haskill Basin, including possible public funding measures such as a ballot initiative.
At a work session on Sept. 15, city councilors and members of the public discussed a financial feasibility study to raise a portion of the funding to complete the land sale.
The meeting came on the heels of a Sept. 9 announcement by Gov. Steve Bullock that the conservation project had been awarded a $2 million grant by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, while other federal funding has also been set aside to aide in the acquisition of the easement.
The easement would help protect more than 3,000 acres in Haskill Basin near Whitefish. The property – prime land 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.
Last year, Stoltze and the nonprofit Trust for Public Lands 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.
Stoltze values the land at $20.6 million, but the company has offered to sell it for $17 million, according to Alex Diekmann, project manager for the Trust for Public Land, which is the nonprofit working to raise money from federal programs, private donors and public funding sources in order to bring the deal to fruition.
Earlier this year, the project received a funding boost from the U.S. Forest Service, which ranks such projects for funding through its Forest Legacy Program, awarding grants to states to purchase permanent conservation easements.
The agency has given the Haskill Basin Watershed Project its No. 1 spot, positioning it to receive $7 million in Legacy Project funding. Together, the grants give the project significant purchase toward raising the $17 million needed to buy the development rights from Stoltze by the end of 2015, leaving a balance of about $7 million.
The Whitefish City Council hosted its meeting at council chambers, gearing the discussion toward identifying avenues of funding, including private and philanthropic contributions, as well as public measures such as a general obligation bond that would go to voters for approval.
Whitefish Mayor John Muhlfeld, a hydrologist and strong proponent of the easement due to the area’s significance as a municipal water supply and a haven for recreation and wildlife, said the continuing support for the project is encouraging.
“The City of Whitefish is committed to this project because it will permanently protect our water supply,” he said, adding that the work session was productive in learning more about potential public funding measures that will be required to help close the gap and make the project a reality.
The city has also asked TPL to provide feasibility research, conduct a public opinion survey and develop other strategies for consideration.