Environment

Sprawling Public Lands Project Gains Commission Approval

Montana Great Outdoors Conservation Project one step closer to safeguarding 114,000 acres of former timberlands between Kalispell and Libby

By Tristan Scott
An aerial view of a portion of the Lost Trail Conservation Easement. Photo courtesy Kestrel Aerial

Following unanimous approval from the state Fish and Wildlife Commission, the Montana Great Outdoors Conservation Project is one step closer to furnishing permanent protections on 113,951 acres of working forestland ringing the Thompson Chain of Lakes area between Kalispell and Libby.

The commission endorsed the project at its Dec. 14 meeting in Helena, allowing officials with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) to move forward with land appraisals and other steps necessary to finalize the conservation easements that have been years in the making.

According to land and wildlife managers, it’s a plum deal for Northwest Montana’s corporate timberlands, a large segment of which have exchanged hands in recent years through a rapid succession of land transactions, casting shades of uncertainty across the landscape.

Occurring in a region where development pressure has never been higher, the transactions might have spelled trouble for the public’s ability to access the lands for hunting, fishing and recreation, while disturbing some of the most connected wildlife habitat in the West.

Fortunately, land and wildlife managers with FWP spared no time in approaching the new owners in an effort to negotiate conservation easements, which allow the landowners to retain ownership of the timberlands and conduct sustainable logging operations while precluding development and protecting critical wildlife habitat. 

It also secures the public’s ability to access the land in perpetuity.

Announcing the agency’s support for the easements early on in the negotiations, FWP Director Hank Worsech said “these projects reflect the good collaboration and stewardship that help define Montana.” Both of Montana’s U.S. senators also offered a bipartisan endorsement of the proposed deal, which has enjoyed support from sportsmen groups and conservation organizations alike.

Two years ago, however, the future wasn’t so certain on a landscape spanning a checkerboard pattern of corporate and private ownership, in which one misstep could erode the hard-earned linkages between islands of protected acreage, including the Thompson Chain of Lakes State Park; the 142,000-acre Thompson-Fisher Conservation Easement; and the 100,000-acre Lost Trail Conservation Easement.

In December 2019, a Georgia-based investment firm called Southern Pine Plantations, doing business as SPP Montana, paid $145 million in exchange for 630,000 acres of timberland in Flathead and Lincoln counties, purchasing the land outright from Weyerhaeuser Co. as the timber giant unloaded the last of its Montana inventory. The exchange raised plenty of eyebrows as the new owners openly discussed the possibility of future sales to private investors, which would have jeopardized public access.

But SPP pledged to maintain the longstanding public access agreements that Weyerhaeuser accepted on a handshake-deal basis, as well as to continue negotiating permanent protections — a promise the sporting community took to heart. That pledge remained in place despite the November 2020 announcement that SPP was indeed selling nearly half of its newly acquired acreage to Green Diamond Resource Company, which owns about 2.1 million acres of working forest lands in Washington, Oregon, California, and now, Montana.

Like its predecessors at SPP, and before that at Weyerhaeuser Co., officials at Green Diamond said access and conservation would remain top priorities as they engage management agencies and partner with stakeholders.

Dubbed the “Montana Great Outdoors Conservation Easement,” the project would conserve key winter range and migration corridors for elk, mule deer, white-tailed deer, and moose, as well as protect critical habitat for bull trout, grizzly bear and Canada lynx, which are all listed as threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.

Funding sources for the land deals would come from the U.S. Forest Service’s Forest Legacy Program, Habitat Montana, as well as other grants or contributions.

As part of the Forest Legacy funding application process, FWP has received letters of support for the proposal from a diverse mix of interests, including: the Lincoln, Flathead, and Sanders county commissions; Montanan U.S. Sens. Steve Daines (R) and Jon Tester (D); the Kootenai National Forest; the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes; and local timber companies. No formal public involvement has yet occurred. With the commission’s endorsement, the agency will begin conducting “appropriate due diligence, analysis, and public review processes,” officials said.

tscott@flatheadbeacon.com

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