38,000 Acres of Former Weyco Land Protected Under Lost Trail Conservation Easement

Trust for Public Land, Southern Pine Plantations ink deal to permanently preserve recreational access and ensure sustainable timber harvests in Flathead, Lincoln counties

By Tristan Scott
Views of the proposed Lost Trail Conservation Area. Photo by Chris Boyer/Kestrel Aerial Services

A little more than a year after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) approved a plan to safeguard up to 100,000 acres of privately owned timberland through conservation easements in Flathead and Lincoln counties, the project’s stakeholders have completed the first phase of the Lost Trail Conservation Area, setting aside 38,052 acres of ecologically rich wildlife habitat that also offers some of the best deer and elk hunting in northwest Montana.

Representing a critical puzzle piece in the 100,000-acre Lost Trail Conservation Area, the land acquisition was announced Wednesday by the nonprofit Trust for Public Land (TPL), in partnership with Southern Pine Plantations (SPP) and FWS. The conservation easement provides permanent public access to “exceptional” recreation lands, according to the announcement, while allowing SPP to continue sustainable timber harvesting, and protecting “incomparable wildlife habitat.”

“We at Trust for Public Land want to extend a heartfelt thank you to all the partners who have made this conservation success a reality,” TPL Northern Rockies Director Dick Dolan said in a prepared statement. “This project wouldn’t have been possible if not for the vision and follow through of Southern Pine Plantations and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Their commitment to protecting the landscapes and heritage of which make Montana so special is commendable and should be applauded.”

The proposed project lands currently form a checkerboard of ownership girding the FWS’ Lost Trail National Wildlife Refuge, a 7,876-acre mosaic of wetlands, streams, prairie grasslands, forested hillsides, and rock outcroppings overlooking the Pleasant Valley near Marion. The majority of the acreage surrounding the refuge, however, has historically been owned and managed as corporate timberland, changing hands through a succession of land transactions that have cast the future of the region in doubt — most recently when Georgia-based SPP, a real estate and timberland investment firm doing business as SPP Montana, bought out the previous owner, Weyerhaeuser Co.

A map of the proposed Lost Trail Conservation Area in Northwest Montana. Courtesy Trust for Public Land

With a track record of flipping large chunks of private forestland in the western and southeastern U.S., including selling parcels for private development in Idaho’s Payette River Valley, SPP’s purchase of the land raised immediate concerns.

Allaying those concerns out of the gate, SPP has since worked closely with FWS and TPL to furnish permanent protections on the Lost Trail Conservation Area. With Wednesday’s announced completion of the project’s initial phase, the partners, including federal resource managers, will continue their work to secure funding through the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), enabling the agency to secure grant money to acquire the additional easements from SPP.

“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is excited to add a new unit to the refuge system. This project embodies the ‘working with others’ component of our mission and represents a win for the local communities that rely on the timber industry, public land users, and conservation,” according to Ben Gilles of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The Lost Trail project’s significance to wildlife habitat protection is significant in that it lies immediately north of the Lost Trail National Wildlife Refuge, providing a wide ecological buffer. The property is also critical habitat for grizzly bears and Canada lynx, providing secured connectivity between the Northern Continental Divide and Cabinet-Yaak Ecosystems.

In that respect, the Lost Trail Conservation Project is not only vital wildlife habitat, but a central puzzle piece of private land in the midst of an elaborate and historical network of public-private landscape conservation occurring in northwest Montana, according to TPL’s Lucas Cain, program manager for the organization’s northern Rockies region.

“For decades Montanans’ access to some of our most treasured land has been guaranteed through little more than a handshake and gentlemanly agreements. But at a time when Montana is seeing break-neck growth, TPL and our partners are doing everything we can — to keep Montana, Montana – and protect access to our favorite hunting spots, hiking trails, or secret fishing holes,” according to Cain. “This project represents all the best aspects of conservation in Montana: sustainable timber management, protection of wildlife, and preserving access to these lands into the future.”

The initial unit of the conservation area complements and builds upon over 350,000 acres of conserved land that has been completed in the area over the last 20 years, helping stitch together projects such as the nearby 142,200-acre Thompson-Fisher Conservation Easement, the adjacent 7,956-acre Lost Trail National Wildlife Refuge, the recently completed 27,289-acre Kootenai Forestlands Phase II Conservation Easement, and the future 115,000-acre Montana Great Outdoors Project currently being facilitated by TPL. Over 20 years, TPL has preserved over 600,000 acres in Montana leaving a legacy of public access for future generations, and now with the ambitious goal to conserve an additional 200,000 acres over the next three years.

Even though FWS will hold the conservation easement on this property, SPP will remain the landowner.

“SPP Montana fully understands the compelling need to preserve both a viable timber industry and recreational access for the people of Montana,” according to Benjy Griffith, president of SPP Montana. “Partnering with TPL and USFWS, we have preserved this property as forever wild and forever accessible.”

The project has garnered wide bipartisan support from a slate of elected officials in Montana, including both of its U.S. senators and county officials.

“Montana’s public lands are the cornerstone of our booming outdoor economy and are foundational to our state’s heritage,” according to a statement from U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana. “Responsible management starts with a balanced approach, and by fully funding the Land Water Conservation Fund through my Great American Outdoors Act, we made sure that places like the Lost Trail Conservation Area will create good paying jobs and ensure that folks in the Treasure State can enjoy access to their public lands for generations to come. It’s great to see folks coming together to set a high standard for management of Montana’s public lands.”

“The Lost Trail Project will help expand access to Montana’s public lands, strengthen Montana’s legacy of wildlife conservation all while continuing to support working timberland in northwest Montana,”according to a statement from Montana’s Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines.

“I am so grateful to all of the folks who stepped up and made the Lost Trail Conservation Area happen. This is a win/win for sportsmen, recreationists, the lumber industry, and the citizens of Flathead County for decades to come,” added Flathead County Commissioner Randy Brodehl.

State wildlife managers also voiced support for the project, which dovetails with a separate conservation easement on 7,274 acres of adjoining land south of the Lost Trail National Wildlife Refuge, on Dredger Ridge.

“This new Lost Trail Conservation Area is a victory for public recreational access, working lands, and wildlife,” according to an emailed statement from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Region 1 Supervisor Lee Anderson. “I applaud everyone who worked hard over many years to accomplish this important project. These projects reflect the good collaboration and stewardship that help define Montana.”