Conservation project earns international award

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The Whitefish Lake Watershed Project includes a mix of meadows, streams, small lakes and ponds and forestland. (Chris Peterson file photo/ Hungry Horse News)

An effort that eventually led to the conservation of 13,400 acres west of Whitefish has earned international recognition.

The Whitefish Lake Watershed Project completed in October 2018 was a collaborative effort between state and federal agencies, conservation groups, timber and energy companies, and a public land trust to acquire and eventually add forestland to the Stillwater State Forest.

The project earned the Habitat Conservation Partnership Award at the 2019 Wings Across the Americas Ceremony in Washington, D.C. on April 23. The U.S. Forest Service International Programs and Environment for the Americas co-hosted the special event to recognize exceptional efforts in advancing conservation for migratory species.

Years in the making, the project involved Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and The Trust for Public Land proposing to conserve high-quality forests, wetlands, and endangered species habitat approximately nine miles northwest of Whitefish.

The land, previously owned by Weyerhaeuser Company, was poised for potential residential development in the future. The completion of the project placed the land under permanent protected status, managed by the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation for habitat conservation, public recreation, and sustainable timber resources.

This project shows what we can achieve when we work together and partner to conserve important habitat for migratory species. Its not easy, but its always worth it, said FWP Director Martha Williams in a release.

FWP especially appreciates the commitment from Weyerhaeuser, The Trust for Public Land, Bonneville Power Administration, and DNRC, who have all helped to provide this opportunity to continue sustainable forest management, conserve fish and wildlife habitat, and provide for continued public enjoyment on these treasured lands.

TPL acquired the entire project area from Weyerhaeuser in 2017. A series of land maneuvers, along with public and private funding paved the way to preserve the forestland. A total of $32 million in funding allowed for the conservation project.

FWP, with the guidance from Region 1 staff members Alan Wood and Kris Tempel, purchased a conservation easement on approximately 10,218 acres. The DNRC purchased the underlying fee ownership from TPL once the conservation easement was in place.

The Bonneville Power Administration provided funding for the purchase of the other 3,180 acres in the Swift Creek drainage. In exchange for their funding, BPA retained a perpetual conservation easement on the five sections.

The U.S. Forest Service Forest Legacy Program provided funding along with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Habitat Conservation Plan Land Acquisition Grant. FWPs Habitat Montana Program also provided funding.

The areas low-elevation wetlands and meadows are home to many birds, bats, butterflies, and dragonflies, along with other wildlife, such as grizzly bears, lynx, and wolves. The acquisition fills a gap in a large network of public lands that provide critical wildlife habitat as well as significant economic drivers through recreation and timber, according to a release by FWP.

The Wings Across the Americas awards recognize the achievements of Forest Service employees and their partners in bird, bat, butterfly and dragonfly conservation.

The block of land had been considered a gap in the state forest since it was sold by Montana in the early 20th century.

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