FWP Proposes Conservation Easement on Private Timberland in Northwest Montana

The state agency is accepting public comment on a deal to place nearly 33,000 acres owned by Green Diamond Resource Company under an easement 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

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) is seeking feedback on a public lands project that would furnish permanent protections on nearly 33,000 acres of private timberland in northwest Montana while precluding development on a patchwork of forestland surrounding the Thompson Chain of Lakes between Kalispell and Libby.

The Fish and Wildlife Commission endorsed the project in December 2021, allowing FWP officials to move forward with land appraisals, public scoping and other steps necessary to finalize the conservation easement. FWP is working with The Trust for Public Land (TPL) and Green Diamond Resource Company to identify funding sources for the potential easement spanning private land in Lincoln, Flathead, and Sanders counties.

Dubbed the Montana Great Outdoors Conservation Easement, FWP this week published a draft environmental assessment that outlines its first phase. The proposal is similar to other conservation easements on timberlands across the region, where development pressure has intensified. 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 Montana Great Outdoors Conservation Easement 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. Major drainages in the project area include the Thompson River, Indian Creek, Twin Lakes Creek, and Wolf Creek.

Under the terms of the easement, which provide for public recreation access and the preservation of wildlife habitat, Green Diamond would retain ownership of the land under an easement owned by FWP. The easement would allow Green Diamond to sustainably harvest wood products from its timberlands.

It is the first of a potential two-phased project totaling 85,792 acres of private timberland and fish and wildlife habitat owned by Green Diamond and includes forestlands in the Salish and Cabinet mountains between Kalispell and Libby.

“The private property provides abundant public hunting and angling opportunities that would be permanently secured under this proposal,” according to FWP’s scoping announcement. “This project would conserve wildlife 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 U.S. Forest Service Forest Legacy Program, the Habitat Montana program, and funds raised by Trust for Public Land would be funding sources if this proposal were to proceed. Green Diamond would provide an in-kind contribution in the form of donated land value arising from the sale of the easement.

According to the draft EA, the appraised value of the proposed Montana Great Outdoors Conservation Easement – Phase 1 is $39,507,442.25. Secured funding amounts and sources include: $1.5 million from Habitat Montana; $4,179,837.43 from private fundraising coordinated by TPL, and $20 million from the U.S. Forest Service’s Forest Legacy Program. The Landowner, Green Diamond Resource Company, will provide $13,827,604.80 (which is approximately 35% of the value) of in-kind contribution in the form of donated land value arising from the sale of the easement.

A map of the proposed project area. Courtesy FWP

The affected property has historically been owned by mining and timber companies and private landowners that have allowed the public to access the property through short-term Block Management agreements or voluntary open land policies. 

According to land and wildlife managers, it’s a good deal for the region’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. Still, they say, as land values spike, the easement would not be possible without Green Diamond’s in-kind contribution

“Green Diamond has essentially offered to donate 35% of the value of this easement, so they’ve really stepped up as an exemplary partner,” Dillon Tabish, FWP’s education and information specialist, said.

The deadline to comment on this proposal is May 15. To comment and learn more, visit https://fwp.mt.gov/news/public-notices.

FWP will review comments and forward a recommendation to the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission this summer. If approved, the project would go before the Montana Land Board for final review.

Anticipated Project Schedule

Public Comment Period: April 15 – May 15

Recommended decision to Fish and Wildlife Commission: June 12

Fish and Wildlife Commission Review: Aug. 16

Land Board Review: Sept. 16

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