Whitefish Watershed Project Honored for Conservation and Collaboration

International group recognizes efforts to preserve more than 13,300 acres for habitat conservation, sustainable forestry and recreation

By Tristan Scott
Forested land north of Whitefish Lake. Courtesy Kestrel Aerial

A collaboration involving diverse stakeholders, including state and federal agencies, conservation groups, timber and energy companies, and a public land trust to acquire and permanently protect 13,398 acres near Whitefish, has garnered international recognition and accolades.

The Whitefish Lake Watershed Project earned the Habitat Conservation Partnership Award at the 2019 Wings Across the Americas Ceremony in Washington, D.C. on April 23. The U.S. Forest Service International Programs and Environment for the Americas co-hosted the event to “recognize exceptional efforts in advancing conservation for migratory species,” according to a release sent May 17.

The Whitefish Lake Watershed Project was spearheaded by officials with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) and members of The Trust for Public Land (TPL), which proposed conserving more than 13,000 acres of high-quality forests, wetlands and endangered species habitat approximately nine miles northwest of Whitefish. The land, owned by Weyerhaeuser Company, has long faced intense pressure for potential future residential development due to its proximity to Whitefish and its natural beauty. The completion of the project places the land under permanent protected status, managed by the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation for habitat conservation, public recreation, and sustainable timber resources.

FWP will hold the conservation easement on 3,200 acres, which adjoins the 7,018-acre easement purchased last year.

“This project shows what we can achieve when we work together and partner to conserve important habitat for migratory species. It’s not easy, but it’s always worth it,” FWP Director Martha Williams stated in a news release announcing the award. “FWP especially appreciates the commitment from Weyerhaeuser, The Trust for Public Land, Bonneville Power Administration, and DNRC, who have all helped to provide this opportunity to continue sustainable forest management, conserve fish and wildlife habitat, and provide for continued public enjoyment on these treasured lands.”

TPL acquired the entire project area from Weyerhaeuser in 2017. FWP, with guidance from Region 1 staff members Alan Wood and Kris Tempel, purchased a conservation easement on approximately 10,218 acres. The DNRC purchased the underlying fee ownership from TPL once the conservation easement was in place.

The Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) provided funding for the purchase of the other 3,180 acres in the Swift Creek drainage. In exchange for their funding, BPA retained a perpetual conservation easement on that section. The U.S. Forest Service Forest Legacy Program provided funding along with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Habitat Conservation Plan Land Acquisition Grant. FWP’s Habitat Montana Program also provided funding.

The project has received bipartisan support from Montana’s delegation in Washington D.C., with both Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines joining U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte in saying the project underscored the importance of reauthorizing the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which uses a small fraction of revenues generated from offshore oil and gas royalty payments to protect and enhance outdoor recreation and natural resources. LWCF is not funded by general taxpayer dollars.

“The Stillwater Forest Legacy Project is the kind of collaborative action that strengthens our public lands and boosts out growing outdoor economy,” Tester, a Democrat, stated. “This good news further underscores the urgent need to permanently authorize and fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund so Montanans can continue to build on our outdoor way of life and preserve it for future generations.”

“After years of work, this great project that expands public access, recreation and conservation of our public lands will now be completed,” according to a statement from Daines, a Republican. “This project is just one more example of the importance of LWCF to Montana. I will continue to fight for permanent reauthorization and full funding of this important program.”

“Nearing completion, this project promises to increase public access to our public lands and is another example of what LWCF can do. LWCF is important to Montanans, and I’ll continue working to make sure it’s permanently reauthorized,” stated Gianforte, also a Republican.

The area’s low-elevation wetlands and meadows are home to many birds, bats, butterflies, and dragonflies, along with other wildlife, such as grizzly bears, lynx, and wolves. The acquisition fills a gap in a large network of public lands that provide critical wildlife habitat as well as significant economic drivers through recreation and timber.

The Wings Across the Americas awards recognize the achievements of Forest Service employees and their partners in bird, bat, butterfly and dragonfly conservation.

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.