A 13,400-acre conservation project near Whitefish is close to completion, thanks to a $2 million federal grant.
The Whitefish Lake Watershed Project has spent years working to protect the forests northwest of Whitefish Lake, which offer prime habitat for local game and fish. Last week, it received a key piece of funding from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“This is really exciting,” said Alan Wood, Science Program Supervisor for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Whitetail deer, grizzly bears, lynx and elk roam the region’s trees, and swans and trout ply its streams and ponds. “It’s a very diverse and rich wildlife area, and it’ll be open for wildlife habitat and public access forevermore.”
A complex series of negotiations, purchases and land transfers have gotten the project to this point. After it received state approval last July, the Trust for Public Land, a San Francisco-based conservation nonprofit, bought approximately 10,000 acres of the project area from its previous owner, Seattle-based timber firm Weyerhaeuser.
It held the property while Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks secured funding to buy conservation easements, which will place permanent restrictions on the land’s use.
These easements are being bought in two phases. The first came this past February, when Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks bought a $15.5 million easement on 7,000 acres, using a mix of state, federal and private money. The Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation then bought the land from the Trust for Public Land.
The second phase of the project will buy about 3,000 adjacent acres with an easement worth $6.5 million. $4 million came from the U.S. Forest Service’s Forest Legacy Program, while $500,000 came from the state’s Habitat Montana program.
With the $2 million just granted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the funding is in place to purchase the easement.
“Now we got the money we need, (and) we can start work towards closing the conservation easement,” Wood said. Once that is completed, Natural Resources and Conservation will buy the woodlands from the Trust for Public Land.
By the end of the process, these two tracts, totalling about 10,000 acres, will be owned by the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation and managed as part of Stillwater State Forest. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks will hold the conservation easement.
A third section covers about 3,000 adjacent acres in the Swift Creek drainage, currently owned by the Bonneville Power Administration. Wood said that Bonneville would pay for the land and transfer its ownership to the state, while retaining the conservation easement.
The Department of Natural Resources and Conservation could not be reached for information on how much it would pay for these lands.
Wood said Fish, Wildlife and Parks aims to complete the process “by the end of this calendar year, hopefully sooner.”
He stressed the importance of the federal government’s Land and Water Conservation Fund, the source of both the Forest Legacy Program and the Fish and Wildlife Service grants that supported the project. “It’s a unique funding source and does a lot of good,” he said.
Both of Montana’s Senators, and former U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke, have worked to secure the federal funds, writing to the Forest Service’s and Fish and Wildlife Service’s leaders about the project’s importance.
“There are few places as important as the Whitefish Lake watershed and these funds will ensure that folks can access the trails and streams in northwest Montana for future generations,” Senator Jon Tester, D-Mont., said in a statement. “Investments from the Land and Water Conservation Fund help drive Montana’s growing outdoor economy, and I will relentlessly defend (the fund) so we can keep expanding public access to our public lands.”
In his own statement, Senator Steve Daines, R-Mont., called the area “critical for the protection of wildlife, recreation, timber management and Montana jobs. This grant will help Montana continue its efforts to conserve this area and contribute to our $7 billion outdoor economy.”
In the same press release, Dick Doland, Northern Rockies Director for the Trust for Public Land, thanked the state’s Congressional delegation, Weyerhaeuser, Fish, Wildlife and Parks, and the federal agencies involved. He said the project is “a true home run for public access, water quality and habitat protection.”
Reporter Patrick Reilly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or at 758-4407.