Kootenai Conservation Deal Protects 27,000 Acres of Stimson Timberland

Public-private collaboration culminates in landscape-scale protection in northwest Montana, secures permanent recreation access to Libby-area working forests

By Tristan Scott
An aerial view of the Kootenai River and Montana Highway 37 with Libby in the distance. Photo courtesy Kestrel Aerial

A conservation easement was finalized Thursday on more than 27,000 acres of timberland owned by Stimson Lumber Company near Libby, furnishing permanent protections on key wildlife habitat while securing recreation access and maintaining a working forest.

The property is owned by Stimson Lumber Company, which is one of the oldest continuously operating integrated wood products companies in the U.S., with roots dating back to the 1850s. Under the deal, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) will hold the conservation easement while Stimson retains ownership of the land and continues to sustainably manage it for timber production. The easement precludes development, protects important wildlife habitat and key landscape connectivity, and provides permanent public access and recreational opportunities on the property.

The easement was a collaborative effort between Stimson, FWP and The Trust for Public Lands, which announced completion of the deal Thursday morning. The project concludes the second phase of the Kootenai Forestlands Conservation Project, which consists of 27,289 acres of Stimson property southeast of Libby.

“Stimson Lumber Company strongly supports working forestlands which provide quality recreational opportunities, excellent fish and wildlife habitat and a healthy environment,” Andrew Miller, Stimson Lumber Company’s president and CEO, stated. “Working forestlands also promote vibrant, healthy forests which contribute to important rural economies. Stimson appreciates being a part of the collaborative effort with The Trust for Public Land and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks on this important landscape project in northwestern Montana. Present and future generations will appreciate the benefits of this important project.”

The newly completed easement not only builds on the Kootenai Forestlands project’s initial phase, which protected 22,295 acres of adjacent Stimson land using similar funding sources, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Legacy Program (FLP), but it dovetails with the 142,000-acre Thompson-Fisher Conservation Easement and the 27,992-acre Kootenai Valleys Conservation Easement.

In addition to FLP dollars, funding for the project was provided by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s Acres for America and Great Migrations Program, Montana Fish and Wildlife Conservation Trust, and “a very generous donation of land value from the Stimson Lumber Company,” according to a TPL statement announcing the project’s completion.

Besides the project area’s timber production and recreational values, the landscape provides key winter range and a migratory corridor for elk, mule deer, white-tailed deer, and moose. It will also ensure protection of critical habitat for threatened species like bull trout, grizzly bear, and Canada lynx found on the property.

“The most successful conservation efforts involve collaboration, and the Kootenai Forestlands project is a prime example,” FWP Region 1 Supervisor Jim Williams said. “This project has brought together public and private entities to support working lands, wildlife habitat, and public access for recreation. Montana is fortunate to have landowners like Stimson Lumber Company that value these outcomes, and we’re fortunate to have The Trust for Public Land helping local communities protect the land they have valued and used for generations.”

Indeed, Williams said, few nonprofit organizations can rival TPL’s contributions to land protection in northwest Montana, particularly as it relates to ensuring continued timber production and management, as well as leaving wildlife habitat intact and watersheds unsullied. In 2003, for example, TPL was instrumental in completing a $34 million, seven-year effort to preserve the Thompson and Fisher river valleys from development, setting aside what at the time was the largest conservation easement in Montana history.

“The Trust for Public Land is thrilled to have played a part in this conservation effort, that will ensure protection of working forests, wood-product jobs, and permanent public land access for thousands of Montanans,” Chris Deming, TPL’s northern rockies land protection director, said of the Kootenai Forestlands Project. “It would not be happening without the generous support of the Stimson Lumber Company and the collaboration with Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks and we thank our partners for their leadership and vision.”

Both of Montana’s U.S. senators also supported the project, and were instrumental in shepherding the Great American Outdoors Act into law last year, as well as stabilizing and boosting funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), which funds the FLP. In statements to the Beacon, U.S. Sens. Jon Tester, D-Montana, and Steve Daines, R-Montana, cheered the Kootenai Forestlands Project as a win for industry, conservation and recreation.

“This project will help increase public access to public lands and support outdoor recreation for all Montanans,” Daines said. “This project wouldn’t have been possible without the passage of my historic conservation legislation, the Great American Outdoors Act.”

“The Kootenai Forestlands Conservation Project shows what’s possible when sustainable timber and conservationists come together to find solutions,” according to Tester. “I’m proud to have led the push in the Senate for the Land and Water Conservation Fund and the Great American Outdoors Act, which allowed the Forest Service to get this done. This project will create good paying Montana jobs and ensure that we protect public access and preserve our pristine forests for decades to come.”