Outdoors

Deal to Permanently Protect 7,000 Acres of Timberland Finalized in Flathead County

Lost Trail Conservation Easement provides recreational access while ensuring sustainable timber harvesting

The final stretch of 2020 brought good news for public land users on a 7,256-acre tract of private forestland west of Kalispell, where Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) closed on a deal to furnish permanent protections on a prized parcel that will remain open to the public in perpetuity while also allowing sustainable timber harvests to continue.

Known as the Lost Trail Conservation Easement, the project is the culmination of a land deal that’s been baking for months between FWP and Southern Pine Plantations (SPP), a real estate and timberland investment firm that in late 2019 purchased 630,000 acres of land from Weyerhaeuser Co., the timber giant that purchased the land from Plum Creek five years ago.

Initially, news of the purchase by SPP raised concerns among public land users in the region about whether the new owner might subdivide the parcels and sell them off for private development, or continue to allow access on a handshake arrangement.

In finalizing the conservation easement, FWP and SPP lay those concerns to rest due in large part to a partnership with the Trust for Public Land (TPL), which helped broker the deal and billed the easement as one of the most significant conservation opportunities in the region in years, setting aside critical wildlife habitat connecting Glacier National Park to the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness and the Selkirk and Coeur d’Alene mountains.

“This project truly meets a triple bottom line by providing outdoor access for the community, protecting wildlife habitat and ensuring timber harvesting can continue,” said Catherine Schmidt, a TPL field representative. “It’s projects like this that demonstrate the power of conservation for communities across Montana. We’re grateful to the partnership and support of SPP and FWP in making this project a reality.”

This project builds upon a long history of conservation in the region and complements an existing network of public lands, including the adjacent 7,965-acre Lost Trail National Wildlife Refuge, the 4,093 acres of Natural Resource Conservation Service-held Wetland Reserve Program easements, and the nearby 142,200-acre Thompson-Fisher Conservation Easement, a previous TPL project.

This Lost Trail Conservation Easement protects the entire north-facing slope of Dredger Ridge, which is one of the most popular elk hunting areas in Northwest Montana. The property is also vital for protecting habitat for grizzly bears and Canada lynx.

“This collaboration showcases the value of public-private partnerships and good landowner relations that ensure permanent recreational access and habitat conservation,” said Jim Williams, regional supervisor for FWP. “We are very grateful to have a willing landowner like SPP recognize these conservation benefits for all Montanans.”

FWP will hold the conservation easement on this property and SPP will remain the landowner. TPL negotiated and managed the establishment of the conservation easement. Funding for the conservation easement was made possible through the U.S. Forest Service’s Forest Legacy Program, Habitat Montana, and the Montana Fish and Wildlife Conservation Trust. The project would not have been possible without the “generous partnership and conservation mindset of SPP,” according to Williams.

“SPP recognizes that a viable timber industry and outdoor recreational access are both important to the people of Montana. Securing a conservation easement on these lands provides a long-term solution toward preserving both. This is an important first step in working with The Trust for Public Land to conserve critical working forests across northwest Montana,” said Pat Patton, the manager of SPP’s Montana holdings.