Tangent to the conservation puzzle of Northwest Montana, a colossal piece began falling into place this week when The Trust for Public Land and Plum Creek announced a partnership to conserve 15,334 acres of the timber giant’s forested property north of Whitefish Lake.
The Whitefish Lake Conservation Project marks the culmination of years of work by land managers and environmental groups who recognized the development pressure that could bear down on the prized landscape about a mile-and-a-half north of Whitefish Lake, which is flanked by the Stillwater State Forest, laced with creeks and tributaries and provides some of the most critical habitat to grizzly bear, lynx, bull trout, cutthroat trout, elk, wolves, and white-tail deer in the state.
With its rarefied mix of forested parcels, creeks and tributaries and low wetlands, the block of land offers key wildlife habitat connectivity and migration paths between the Whitefish Range and the Cabinet Purcell Mountain Corridor, as well as prime bull trout habitat.
“This property has been on our radar for quite some time,” said Alan Wood, regional wildlife mitigation coordinator for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. “It’s a great hunting area, it’s got an exceptional amount of bull trout spawning and rearing habitat and it’s right next to the growing community of Whitefish, so you can imagine the development potential. And wildlife-wise, it has that low-elevation, wet-meadow-and-forest mix. And because it’s surrounded by the state forest it’s this big block of habitat that is really connecting lands all around it.”
Under the agreement, the Trust for Public Land (TPL) will have an option to purchase 1,920 acres and establish a conservation easement on the remaining 13,414 acres, which Plum Creek will continue to own and manage as a working forest. The purchased lands will eventually be transferred into public ownership or to a conservation buyer. The agreement is subject to final conditions including appraisal and secured funding.
Tom Ray, vice president of northwest resources and manufacturing for Plum Creek, said the company began forging the partnership with TPL about four months ago and called the collaboration a “win-win,” falling in accordance with the company’s legacy of conservation in the region.
“We have a history of these projects, and when you think of the rate that Whitefish is growing and the importance of this property to wildlife habitat and recreation, this just made sense,” Ray said. “And it will continue to be a working forest. That’s why it’s a win-win. We will continue to manage those lands for timber production and keep our mills filled.”
While the conservation and recreation community praised the easement because it furnishes protections on critical fish and wildlife habitat and provides continued public access for outdoor recreation, it will also help secure the city of Whitefish’s water supply, 20 percent of which is drawn from Whitefish Lake, which is immediately adjacent to the property.
Coupled with the nearby Haskill Basin project on land owned by F.H. Stoltze Land and Lumber Co. – the source of the city’s remaining water supply – the Whitefish Lake Conservation Project affords the final safeguard from the threats of development.
Whitefish Mayor John Muhlfeld said this summer has been a prime example of the city’s reliance on Whitefish Lake, from which it began drawing its water six weeks earlier than usual due to the historically dry conditions.
“Haskill Basin and Whitefish Lake are our only water supplies, and we started drawing from the lake in late June when historically we don’t start until early-to-late August,” Muhlfeld said. “Thinking a year or two ahead with our warming trends, the lake becomes increasingly important, and ensuring that its water quality is as clear as possible is critical.”
The cost of pumping and treating water from the lake is much more expensive, Muhlfeld said, and maintaining its pristine quality will save the community financially.
Alex Diekmann, project manager for TPL and a primary architect of the deal with Plum Creek, said if completed the easement will stand out as critically significant on its own. But when it and the other projects it complements are viewed for the sum of their parts, “it’s truly remarkable,” he said.
“When we start piecing together the various conservation projects we have helped coordinate, from a regional and even a national perspective, when you look at Haskill Basin, the North Fork Watershed Protection Act, the Whitefish School Trust Lands Neighborhood Plan, these projects are all linked to clean water, wildlife, and, equally important, our economy,” he said. “I don’t think we can point to any other place in the country where the range of projects has accomplished as much as it has in Whitefish.”
Mike Koopal, executive director of the Whitefish Lake Institute, spoke to the importance of a watershed that drains into Whitefish Lake – protecting one ensures the health of the other.
“The health of Whitefish Lake is a reflection of its watershed,”Koopal said. “Swift Creek and Lazy Creek account for about 85 percent of the tributary flow to Whitefish Lake and essentially set the lake’s nutrient budget. If we get additional nutrient and sediment loads to a lake that historically had little, we can expect denser algal blooms, a reduction in water clarity, and lower dissolved oxygen levels needed by aquatic organisms.”
If Plum Creek and TPL reach an agreement, under the terms the project will unfold in three phases, with the first 1,920 acres to be acquired by TPL by the end of calendar year 2016 and the remaining parcels to be acquired at the end of 2017 and 2018, respectively.
Managing the easement will be similarly structured to the Haskill Basin project, to be held by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks in the long run while ensuring that it’s managed to sustain wildlife and public access.
Wood, of the FWP, said funding the project will require several partners, and that agencies will apply for funding under the federal Forest Legacy Program immediately. That program caps at $7 million.
Diekmann and other stakeholders said they were confident that other funding pieces would also fall into place given the significance of the project, but that private donors would likely be necessary.