Easements could protect habitat, ensure public access

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View of Dahl Lake and Lost Trail National Wildlife Refuge from Pleasant Valley Road. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake file)

The Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission recently unanimously approved the acquisition by the state Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks of the Kootenai Forestlands conservation easement.

It was one of two conservation easements with regional significance approved or endorsed by the commission during its Aug. 15 meeting.

FWP said the Kootenai Forestlands easement will safeguard about 22,295 acres of forestlands around Libby from development, protect wildlife habitat and insure public access and recreational opportunities such as hunting, fishing, hiking, snowmobiling and cross-country skiing.

The final appraised value of the easement is $8.3 million. Funding will come from a $6 million grant from the U.S. Forest Service Forest Legacy Program and from a grant secured by The Trust for Public Land from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

Separately, the commission endorsed FWP’s proposal to continue negotiating with Weyerhaeuser about a proposed conservation easement in the vicinity of the Lost Trail National Wildlife Refuge near Marion.

The Lost Trail conservation easement would involve about 7,274 acres of timberland along the southern border of the federal wildlife refuge. This agreement also would preclude development, protect wildlife habitat and provide for public access and recreation, FWP said.

It would help protect a key migratory corridor for elk and the north slope of a ridge described by FWP as a favorite walk-in elk hunting area.

The Kootenai Forestlands project is a collaborative effort involving Stimson Lumber, The Trust for Public Lands and Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

Likely funding sources for the Lost Trail easement would be the Forest Legacy Program and Habitat Montana.

For the Kootenai Forestlands easement, Stimson would retain ownership of what FWP described as “highly productive forestlands.”

For the Lost Trail agreement, Weyerhaeuser would retain ownership of “highly productive timberland.”

An environmental assessment was released earlier this year for public comment for the Kootenai Forestlands conservation easement.

FWP said the Lost Trail proposal has received support from the Flathead County commissioners, Montana’s congressional delegation, federal agencies, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and many conservation groups.

On Aug. 15, the Fish and Wildlife Commission endorsed FWP’s proposal to continue negotiating with Weyerhaeuser about the Lost Trail easement and to complete analysis that would include public scoping and an environmental analysis.

The Kootenai Forestlands project’s scattered parcels would share 133 miles of border with the Kootenai National Forest. Hunting activities on the property would include elk, white-tailed deer, mule deer, moose and more. It includes federally designated critical habitat for grizzly bears, Canada lynx and bull trout.

FWP said an increasing number of homes and developments in Lincoln County have occurred in the so-called “wildland-urban interface” and that completion of the easement could reduce taxpayer-funded costs of firefighting by more than 50 percent.

FWP said the Kootenai Forestlands Conservation Easement deal could close within the next 45 days.

Reporter Duncan Adams may be reached at dadams@dailyinterlake.com or 758-4407.

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