Conservation Easement Adds 6,380 acres to Stillwater State Forest

$6 million in federal grants help complete final phase of Whitefish Lake Watershed Project

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

A collaboration between the Trust for Public Land, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, and the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation has secured and added 6,380 acres to the Stillwater State Forest north of Whitefish.

The conservation effort not only protects a critically important fish and wildlife habit from development but also allows for recreational opportunities and sustainable forest management. The addition, announced last week, was the final phase of the Whitefish Lake Watershed Project, which has added 13,398 acres of once-privately owned timberland to the state forest.

The land was originally owned by the state but was sold off in the early part of the 20th century, leaving a large swath of public land surrounded by state forest. The land eventually ended up in the hands of Weyerhaeuser.

“This addition helps fill a huge hole that was once right in the middle of the Stillwater State Forest,” said Montana FWP Resource Specialist Kris Tempel.

Alan Wood, FWP’s science program manager, said the piece of land was long ago identified as a target for conservation. One reason is that it’s a “fen” type wetland, which is relatively rare in this part of the country. Fens are wetlands that are fed by mineral rich sources of surface or groundwater.

The land is also situated at a low elevation, so it’s not unusual for bears to venture into the area in the spring looking for food because it’s one of the first places to lose snow. Aquatic life is also an important part of the ecosystem there, and fish from Whitefish Lake often travel up to the area to spawn.

Due to its proximity to Whitefish, its natural beauty and its low-elevation, conservationists have long worried that it would become a target for development.

“It’s a really special place,” Wood said.

The land is now owned by the DNRC, with FWP holding a conservation easement on it. The Trust for Public Land helped facilitate the deal.

The final phase of the Whitefish Lake Watershed Project was funded in large part thanks to a $4 million grant from the U.S. Forest Service and its Forest Legacy Program and a $2 million grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Cooperative Endangered Species Conservation Fund program. Both programs are derived from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which Congress recently failed to reauthorize.

“None of this would have been possible without the Land and Water Conservation Fund, and right now those funds just don’t exist unless Congress reauthorizes it,” Wood said.

The project received bipartisan support from Montana’s delegation in Washington D.C., with both Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines saying the project underscored the importance of reauthorizing the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

“The Stillwater Forest Legacy Project is the kind of collaborative action that strengthens our public lands and boosts our growing outdoor economy,” Tester said.

FWP officials also thanked Weyerhaeuser for its help in making the acquisition possible.

“This property includes an incredibly diverse mix of forest, meadow, wetland and streams that are crucial for iconic species like grizzly bears and popular game species like white-tailed deer,” Wood said. “We appreciate Weyerhaeuser’s history of stewardship on this property and their patience while all the partners worked to make this project happen.”

The Bonneville Power Administration also paid $10.68 million to conserve about 3,180 acres of the more than 13,000 acres preserved through the Whitefish Lake Watershed Project. That small section has been donated to the DNRC, while the federal government is holding the conservation easement.