New land easement proposed near Whitefish

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Even as local leaders and state resource managers celebrated the recent completion of the Haskill Basin conservation easement east of Whitefish Lake, a plan to protect more than 15,000 acres of private land northwest of the lake is already in the works.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Conservation Manager Alan Wood said the Whitefish Lake Watershed Project, a 15,334-acre easement proposal northwest of the lake, is still in its preliminary stages.

The conservation easement’s price tag is currently estimated at $40 million, but funding is far from finalized.

As currently proposed, the easement would get about $26 million from federal grant programs. The state is applying for grants from the Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bonneville Power Administration.

The Trust for Public Land’s Northern Rockies office is helping to raise the remaining $14 million through private donations.

The easement would prevent future development on the property — the last large tract of private land in the lake’s drainage still subject to development pressure.

The property, recently acquired from Plum Creek, is owned by Weyerhaeuser and would continue to be logged under Sustainable Forest Initiative standards.

In addition to its recreational popularity, Whitefish Lake also provides a portion of Whitefish’s municipal water.

Noting that Flathead County’s population is growing at about twice the rate of Montana, the state’s application for $14 million from the federal Forest Legacy Program also notes that about 3,000 new homes have been constructed within a 10-mile radius of downtown Whitefish since 2005.

The project would consist of three phases.

The first two would protect a pair of 6,707-acre tracts, and a private party would buy an adjoining 1,920-acre tract that is currently up for sale.

The landowner would then donate a conservation easement on the smaller block of land to the state, satisfying part of its cost-sharing requirements for federal funding.

According to the grant application, the property produces about 2.4 million board-feet of timber per year and employs roughly 24 full-time timber industry workers.

The easement would also secure permanent access to nearly 100 miles of logging roads and trails on the property — including a road that provides access to more than 200 miles of groomed snowmobiling trails in the Stillwater State Forest and Flathead National Forest.

Kris Tempel, a resource assistant for Fish, Wildlife and Parks, added that the land provides important bull and cutthroat trout habitat.

“It’s such an important block of land. Between the fisheries benefits and wildlife benefits, it’s amazing,” she said. “The wet meadows, with the forest surrounding it, is very unique.”

Western Montana has had good luck with the Forest Service grant program over the past several years.

The nearby Haskill Basin easement, which Forest Legacy Program dollars helped pay for, was selected by the federal agency as its highest-priority project nationwide.

Reporter Sam Wilson can be reached at 758-4407 or by email at swilson@dailyinterlake.com.

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