Conservation Deal Adds 7,000 Acres to Stillwater State Forest

Agreement ensures permanent public access, conserves important wildlife habitat

By Justin Franz
Stillwater State Forest near Olney. Contributed Photo.

A coalition of public and private partners announced last week that 11 square miles of land near Olney will be added to the Stillwater State Forest, ensuring permanent public access while simultaneously protecting important wildlife habitat.

Leaders from both sides of the aisle have praised the effort, with a wildlife official calling the protected land “remarkable.”

Last fall, The Trust for Public Land purchased from Weyerhaeuser 7,018 acres along Lazy Creek east of U.S. Highway 93 near Olney. FWP purchased a $15.5 million conservation easement on the property to ensure that it will be permanently managed for sustainable forestry and natural-resource benefits. The easement was funded through a private, state and federal partnership with money from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund. The LWCF uses a fraction of revenue generated from offshore oil and gas royalty payments to protect and enhance outdoor recreation and natural resources.

On Feb. 15, the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation completed the purchase of the easement-encumbered land to add it to the state forest.

The purchase is the first part of a three-phase effort to protect a 13,398-acre block surrounded by the Stillwater State Forest on three sides.

State officials applauded the purchase and said it was only possible with the cooperation of many partners.

“Completion of this conservation easement project has taken the hard work and dedication of many partners, and FWP is thrilled to have been a part of conserving this critical piece of fish and wildlife habitat in perpetuity while also ensuring sustainable forest management and public access into the future,” said Kris Tempel, resource specialist with FWP Region 1.

Alan Wood, the resource conservation manager for FWP’s Region 1, said the land has been on his radar for more than a decade and is a critical area that connects the Whitefish Range with the Purcell and Cabinet mountain ranges. The area consists of rolling hills and wetlands that are popular with grizzly bears, Canada lynx and westslope cutthroat trout, which spawn in nearby Swift Creek.

“This remarkable land provides important habitat for a variety of fish and wildlife and protects waters that are critical for Whitefish’s water supply,” said Noreen Walsh, Mountain-Prairie Regional Director for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “This acquisition ensures permanent protection for one of the last remaining unprotected habitats in this unparalleled landscape.”

Officials involved with the project also thanked a number of groups for their philanthropic support, including the Montana Fish and Wildlife Conservation Trust, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Walmart’s Acres for America Program, Whitefish Community Foundation and several private individuals.

U.S. Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines applauded the effort. Tester said it was a prime example of why the LWCF should be protected.

Officials are optimistic that phase two of the project, which would include the purchase of another section of land directly south of the 7,018 acres, will be completed in the coming months.

“There’s been a lot of hard work on this project the last few years, and there’s still a lot of work to do,” Wood said.

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