If the sale of a prized swath of Northwest Montana forestland to an out-of-state investment firm was cause for consternation earlier this year, then a new proposal to conserve much of that land for public access, wildlife habitat and sustainable timber management ought to be cause for celebration.
That’s the consensus of federal and state land and wildlife resource managers leading the effort to place 100,000 acres of prime hunting and timberland into conservation easements, protecting parcels in Flathead and Lincoln counties from private development in perpetuity while also ensuring continued access for hunters, anglers, hikers, skiers, berry-pickers, and other recreational users, as well as allowing the property to be sustainably managed for timber production.
The proposed project lands form a sprawling checkerboard of ownership flanking the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (FWS) Lost Trail National Wildlife Refuge near Marion. The lion’s share of the project area was recently purchased by Georgia-based Southern Pine Plantations (SPP), a real estate and timberland investment firm that paid $145 million in cash to the previous owner, Weyerhaeuser Co., in exchange for 630,000 acres, touching off rampant speculation among public land users in the region about whether the new guard might chop up the parcels and sell them for private development, supplanting trophy bucks and bulls with gated trophy homes.
The newly proposed Lost Trail Conservation Area would authorize the federal FWS to work with willing sellers like SPP, as well as smaller private owners, to acquire conservation easements on up to 100,000 acres within the defined 116,000-acre conservation area boundary.
According to Ben Gilles, the FWS’ western Montana National Wildlife Refuge Complex Project Leader, those conservation easements would secure public access, prevent residential development and allow for sustainable commercial timber harvests. They’d be similar to existing easements in the area and would dovetail with another easement on SPP land proposed for acquisition by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP).
“This land has historically been open to the public through a de facto agreement with the previous owners, so we’re really excited about having something written down and locked up to ensure that public access continues while still allowing for sustainable timber harvests,” Gilles said.
Indeed, last year’s announcement that Washington-based timber giant Weyerhaeuser was selling its Montana timber portfolio raised a host of concerns about how the new owner would manage the 630,000-acre acquisition and whether it would continue the long-standing practice of allowing public access to hunters, anglers and other land users.
When SPP emerged as the buyer, company officials pledged to explore options to maintain that access, which is now bearing out in the conservation proposal.
As the FWS prepares its Environmental Assessment (EA) on the project, it’s seeking public comment during a 30-day scoping period, extending through Aug. 6. Members of the public who wish to comment should submit letters by email to Benjamin_gilles@fws.gov or by mail to FWS, Attn: Ben Gilles, 922 Bootlegger Trail, Great Falls, 59404.
“Right now we’re trying to do a lot of listening and collect a lot of feedback, so we hope to hear from as many folks as possible,” Gilles said. “This isn’t a done deal yet.”
Based on the findings of the EA, the FWS would use federal Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) dollars to purchase the easements within the conservation area. That funding is derived from federal offshore oil and gas leasing royalties and not taxpayer dollars, Gilles stressed, adding that FWS would not authorize any fee-title acquisitions.
Kris Tempel, a habitat conservation biologist for FWP, said the timing of the conservation easement proposal is serendipitous in that it follows on the heels of the U.S. Senate’s recent passage of the Great American Outdoors Act, which would authorize full and permanent funding of the LWCF, allowing annual allocations of up to $900 million, for which projects like Lost Trail are ripe. The measure still needs approval by the House but has garnered strong bipartisan support.
“If LWCF is fully and permanently funded, that makes a lot of money available for projects like this,” Tempel said. “So the timing couldn’t be any better.”
Jim Williams, regional supervisor for FWP’s Region 1, said the area provides some of the best elk and deer hunting in Northwest Montana, and the state agency has long worked to allow hunters and recreationists to access the private land through its block management program. In the past, FWP has also secured permanent land conservation projects nearby in the Thompson and Fisher river corridors, and is making progress on a similar conservation easement on 7,274 acres of adjoining land south of the Lost Trail National Wildlife Refuge, on Dredger Ridge.
The culmination of the proposed easements would amount to a landscape-scale conservation project, Williams said, giving credit to both FWS and SPP for recognizing the value of maintaining access and expanding protections for wildlife habitat, including elk and grizzly bears that use the area as a migration corridor, while also allowing for sustainable logging.
“We are just really fortunate that Southern Pine Plantations was very interested in this right out of the gate,” Williams said. “They recognized that public access is a treasured opportunity and also the need to protect critical wildlife habitat. The stars really aligned on this project and it’s the product of a lot of relationship building and collaboration. It’s a model partnership that we need to see more of in these wild places.”
Ben Long, a local hunter and conservationist, cheered the proposal and said it helps protect a way of life for Montana families and their outdoor heritage.
“This is great news for Montana hunters and anglers who are tired of losing their favorite spots to no-trespassing signs and trophy homes,” Long said. “Keeping these lands open for recreation, available for wildlife habitat and in active forest management has a lot of advantages.”
“It also drives home the need for Congress to pass the pending funding bill for the Land and Water Conservation Fund,” Long continued.” We can’t take our traditional access for granted any more. If we ignore it, it will go away.”
Molly Elliott, Flathead Regional Leader for the Montana Chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, also urged the House to act swiftly in passing the Great American Outdoors Act, saying projects like Lost Trail underscore the critical role LWCF dollars play in securing access.
“The proposed Lost Trail Conservation Easement would be a giant step in officially retaining some of the public access on the former Weyerhaeuser lands, all the while conserving some productive elk habitat and still allowing sustainable timber harvests,” Elliott said. “It’s a win for everyone.”