A new proposal to conserve 100,000 acres of Northwest Montana forestland is ready for public review, with state and federal land managers billing the project as a rare opportunity to protect wildlife habitat, promote sustainable timber management and ensure recreational access in perpetuity.
The project lands are located in Flathead and Lincoln counties, and form a checkerboard of ownership flanking the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (FWS) Lost Trail National Wildlife Refuge near Marion. A wide swath 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 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.
If approved, the easement would authorize 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 a defined 116,000-acre conservation area boundary.
If a conservation easement is secured on the property, it will be protected from future development while remaining in private hands so its timber can be actively managed for the long-term. The public will also be provided permanent access to the property for recreation.
According to project leader Ben Gilles, the easement would 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.
Gilles said the project integrates landscape-level wildlife and habitat conservation efforts undertaken by FWS and a wide range of partners for the past 20 years. The project would protect crucial wildlife habitat and migration corridors between Glacier National Park, the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness, the Selkirk Mountains, and into the Coeur d’Alene Mountains in Idaho. The areas support threatened and endangered species, including the grizzly bear and Canada lynx, as well as flowering plants like the Spalding’s catchfly. The land within the project area is also a prime location for elk hunting and would support a vital migration corridor for elk and mule deer as identified by FWP.
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.”
No taxpayer dollars would be used to purchase the easements. Instead, the project would use federal Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) dollars derived from federal offshore oil and gas leasing royalties and not taxpayer dollars.
The timing of the Lost Trail proposal is serendipitous in that it follows on the heels of Congress’ recent passage of the Great American Outdoors Act, which authorized full and permanent funding of the LWCF, allowing annual allocations of up to $900 million, for which projects like Lost Trail are ripe. The bill was signed into law by President Donald Trump last month.
The draft environmental assessment and draft land protection plan are now available for public review and comment, which will last until Oct. 16. To submit comments, email LTRCA_comments@fws.gov or write to FWS, Attn: Lost Trail Comments, 922 Bootlegger Trail, Great Falls, 59404.
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