Land Board approves last piece of 13,400-acre conservation project

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The state Land Board has approved the final phase of the 13,400-acre Whitefish Lake Watershed Project northwest of Whitefish Lake.

The board voted on Sept. 17 to approve the donation of the final 3,180 acres of forestland from the Trust for Public Land as funded by Bonneville Power Administration. The larger watershed project, which has been more than three years in the making, is a conservation easement protecting a total of 13,400 acres of forestland. The easement would permanently restrict commercial and residential development, along with protecting important fish and wildlife habitat, ensuring sustainable forest management, and secure public access for recreation, officials have said. The first two phases of the project previously received approval from the Land Board.

John E. Tubbs, DNRC director, said the vote was historic for the Land Board.

He said the issue goes back to when portions of state land were sold in the 1920s and the donation will reacquire all but three sections of the Stillwater State Forest.

Seattle-based timber company Weyerhaeuser previously decided to sell the property, but agreed to give the Trust for Public Land the first option to buy and conserve it. A series of complex land maneuvers, along with public and private funding, have paved the way for the project to preserve the block of forestland as part of the multi-phase project.

Ultimately, the 13,400 acres will become part of the Stillwater through the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.

Gov. Steve Bullock praised the state agencies, along with TPL and Weyerhaeuser, for working to secure the project through a long process. He said the project is a way to protect the state’s heritage, open space and habitat.

“This has become a legacy project for the public to enjoy for generations to come,” he said.

BPA will purchase the 3,180 acres along Swift Creek for the third phase as part of the larger easement. BPA plans to turn ownership of the property over to the DNRC for management, and the conservation easement on that phase of the property would be held by the federal government.

The amount of the purchase is $10.6 million.

The first two phases of the Whitefish Lake Watershed Project, known as the Lazy Creek phases, totaling 10,218 acres, are set to also be owned by the DNRC as part of the Stillwater. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks will hold the conservation easements on those portions of the project.

Federal and state funding sources were previously secured for the first two phases totaling about $22 million.

Kristin Kovalik, senior project manager for TPL, said the moment is “monumental.” She expects the land deals on the project to be completed with the property being conveyed to state ownership in the next few weeks.

“This is really great to have the Land Board give it unanimous approval,” she said. “This is a great step in the process.”

Kovalik said TPL had identified this parcel of land as an ideal property for conservation many years ago when it was owned by Plum Creek before the timber company was purchased by Weyerhaeuser.

“It was private property surrounded on three sides by public land,” she said. “The ability to protect the habitat and keep it open for recreation and close that missing piece is important. We’re glad that the federal, public, state and private partners felt it was important to fund.”

Cecillia Brown, BPA’s project manager, said Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks approached BPA saying the Swift Creek phase of the property was available and would be a good property to use for its mitigation funds.

“This particular acquisition is related to mitigating the impacts of the Hungry Horse hydroelectric facility,” Brown said. “One of the ways we accomplish this is to purchase the land on behalf of the state with the purpose of preserving it.”

BPA is funding the project as part of ongoing efforts to protect, restore and enhance habitat for resident fish, including bull trout and westslope cutthroat trout, and wildlife, BPA notes.

BPA has already completed environmental review of the purchase under the National Environmental Policy Act. DNRC will provide long-term stewardship for the land and will develop a management plan reviewed by BPA.

Brown said following approval by the state Land Board, BPA has a final review to complete on the third phase of the project, but expects to complete the deal by the end of September.

In February, the first phase including 7,000 acres was completed with $15.5 million in funding. Federal funding from the Land and Water Conservation Fund was provided to the project through the USDA Forest Legacy Program and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Cooperative Endangered Species Conservation Fund program.

Additional funding came from the Montana Fish & Wildlife Conservation Trust and FWP’s Habitat Montana program.

Funding for the second phase of about 3,000 acres worth $6.5 million was secured in May also by the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the U.S. Forest Service’s Forest Legacy Program and the state’s Habitat Montana program.

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