FWP Begins Scoping for Conservation Easement on Thompson River Timberland

Project would place 47,907 acres of former Weyerhaeuser acreage under a permanent easement that protects access and wildlife habitat

By Tristan Scott
An aerial view of the project area that Trust for Public Land and Green Diamond Resource Company have arranged to protect through conservation easements west of Kalispell. Photo by Chris Boyer of Kestrel Aerial

Habitat biologists with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) on May 5 began laying the groundwork to establish a conservation easement that would permanently protect 47,907 acres of former Weyerhauser timberland in the Upper Thompson River drainage west of Kalispell.

The proposed easement would span Flathead and Sanders counties and is situated on parcels currently owned by Green Diamond Resource Company, a family-owned timber firm that in January 2021 acquired 291,000 acres of working forest land in the region, becoming the third owner in less than a year to take over management of one of Northwest Montana’s most valuable commodities.

In an effort to preserve the land as an asset for recreation, wildlife habitat and timber production, FWP has been working with private and nonprofit interests to stave off development pressure and furnish the acreage with permanent protections. As part of that process, FWP on May 5 initiated a 30-day public scoping period that will inform its preparation of an Environmental Assessment (EA).

“The proposed conservation easement, to be held by FWP, would allow Green Diamond to retain ownership of these timberlands, preclude development, protect important wildlife habitat, and provide public access and associated recreational opportunities,” according to FWP.

The property currently provides over 45,000 days per year of public hunting and angling that would be secured in perpetuity under this proposal. The project borders the 142,000-acre Thompson-Fisher Conservation Easement, the 86,000-acre proposed Montana Great Outdoors Conservation Easement, as well as Lolo National Forest, Kootenai National Forest, and Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation lands.

“This project would conserve a movement corridor for elk, mule deer, white-tailed deer, and moose as well as critical habitat for bull trout, grizzly bear, and Canada lynx,” according to FWP, adding that those species are all protected under the Endangered Species Act. “Conservation easement terms would preclude the human-wildlife conflicts that come with residential development of properties within wildlife habitat, especially those with grizzly bears, black bears, and mountain lions.”

Map showing the Upper Thompson Connectivity Project. Courtesy Montana FWP

If the proposal succeeds, funding for the project would come from the U.S. Forest Service Forest Legacy Program and grants raised by Trust for Public Land, a nonprofit partner that has been instrumental in helping shape land deals on hundreds of thousands of acres of former timberland in Northwest Montana, where the private parcels have grown increasingly vulnerable to development in recent years.

In December 2019, the Washington-based timber giant Weyerhaeuser Co. announced it was selling all 630,000 acres of its remaining Montana land holdings to a private investment company for $145 million in cash. News of the sale sent shockwaves across the region, unnerving the hunters and fishers who for generations have used its forests as de facto public land. Formerly owned by Plum Creek Timber Company, a succession of landowners had for decades honored the long-standing practice of allowing public access to the vast swath of timberland, a tradition that many feared was about to dissolve under the Weyerhaeuser sale.

“A collective shudder ran down all our spines, not just for those of us in the conservation community but also for land managers and the timber and outdoor recreation industries, because all those private lands have been de facto public lands for decades and they were suddenly at risk,” Dick Dolan, TPL’s Northern Rockies director, told the Beacon at the time. 

With an unprecedented degree of development pressure bearing down on the region, the picture darkened when the buyer emerged as Southern Pine Plantations (SPP), a Georgia-based land investment firm that intended to parcel off the land and sell it to multiple buyers. 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, SPP’s sudden presence on the Montana landscape wasn’t immediately met with open arms.

For example, in 2016 SPP purchased 172,000 acres of forestland in Idaho’s Payette River Valley and sold it to private buyers who stopped logging, locked out the public and blocked access to the national forest. And within a year of its Montana land purchase from Weyerhaeuser, SPP sold 475,000 acres through 49 separate land sales, ranging in size from 4 acres to 291,000 acres, with most falling in the 350-acre range. The second-largest sale was to a private individual who bought 125,800 acres between Flathead and McGregor lakes, dubbing the sprawling parcel Flathead Ridge Ranch. The largest transaction was a sale to Green Diamond, which bought 291,000 acres in January 2021, including an 85,860-acre segment of the Montana Great Outdoors Project footprint.

FWP is seeking public input on this potential project through June 3. 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. Upon completion of the preliminary evaluation, FWP will determine next steps, which may include conducting an environmental analysis with additional opportunity for public input or taking no further action on the proposed project.

Send comments to Leah Breidinger at [email protected] or mail to Montana FWP, Leah Breidinger, Re: Proposed Conservation Easement, 490 N. Meridian, Kalispell, MT, 59901.

More information on this potential project is available to view online at https://fwp.mt.gov/news/public-notices, or contact Habitat Conservation Biologist Leah Breidinger at (406) 751-4573 or via email at [email protected].