FWP Begins Analysis of Public Lands Project in Northwest Montana

Montana Great Outdoors Conservation Project would safeguard nearly 114,000 acres of former timberlands between Kalispell and Libby

By Tristan Scott
An aerial view of the Thompson Chain of Lakes and its surrounding forestland. Photo courtesy of Chris Boyer of Kestrel Aerial

Following unanimous approval last December by the state Fish and Wildlife Commission, agency officials have opened a scoping period for a public lands project that would furnish 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, 2021 meeting in Helena, allowing officials with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) to move forward with land appraisals, public scoping and other steps necessary to finalize the conservation easements that have been years in the making. FWP is working with The Trust for Public Land (TPL) and landowners SPP Montana, LLC (SPP) and Green Diamond Resource Company on the potential easement around the Thompson Chain of Lakes in Lincoln, Flathead, and Sanders counties.

If approved, FWP would hold the conservation easement while SPP and Green Diamond would maintain ownership of the land. The easement would preclude development on those lands, protect important wildlife habitat and landscape connectivity, and provide public access and associated recreational opportunities. The U.S. Forest Service Forest Legacy Program, the Habitat Montana program, and grant funding raised by TPL would be likely funding sources if this proposal were to proceed.

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.

The scoping period offers members of the public a chance to tell FWP what issues and concerns they think should be considered in an environment assessment before the department begins drafting the document.

Dubbed the Montana Great Outdoors Conservation Project, the proposal is similar to other conservation easements on timberlands across the region, where development pressure has never been higher. Those projects have helped maintain public access to the land for hunting, fishing, and recreation while bolstering connectivity on some of the richest wildlife habitat in the West. The project area borders Thompson Chain of Lakes State Park, the 142,000-acre Thompson-Fisher Conservation Easement, and the 100,000-acre U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Lost Trail Conservation Area as well as the Kootenai National Forest and Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation lands.

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. Coinciding as they did with a land rush, the transactions might have spelled trouble for the public’s ability to access the acreage.

However, 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, as the property currently provides abundant public hunting and angling opportunities.

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.

The project would conserve key winter range and a movement corridor for elk, mule deer, white-tailed deer, and moose. It would provide critical habitat for grizzly bear and Canada lynx, federally threatened species found on the property, and protect streams for the westslope cutthroat trout and Columbia River redband trout, both Montana species of concern.

The 30-day scoping period began Feb. 2 and will conclude March 4, according to officials. Comments can be submitted to [email protected] or Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, Chris Hammond, Re: Proposed Conservation Easement, 490 N. Meridian Road, Kalispell, MT, 59901.

Comments received from this preliminary evaluation will help FWP determine public interest, identify potential issues that would require further analysis, and may provide insight for refining the proposal or for developing and analyzing one or more alternatives.