Swaths of the state forestland west of Whitefish between 1915 and 1925 were sold, eventually coming to be owned by the Great Northern Railroad. Trees on the property were then logged to be used as railroad ties.
Ownership of the property changed over time to private timber companies, but remained a missing piece in the Stillwater State Forest. Last week representatives from state and federal agencies, the timber company that ultimately agreed to sell the land and the public land trust that led the way in conservation efforts gathered to celebrate the return of roughly 13,400 acres of forestland to state control.
“We are here 100 years later with the making whole of what used to be a big tooth out of the Stillwater State Forest,” said John Tubbs, director of the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. “This is a great day in the history of the state of Montana and the Stillwater State Forest.”
The Stillwater Forest Conservation Easement, which was previously called the Whitefish Lake Watershed Project, was completed in October 2018 adding the acreage to the Stillwater State Forest. A series of land maneuvers over a number of years, along with public and private funding paved the way to preserve the forestland owned and to be managed by DNRC. The easement for the property has a value of $40 million.
Gathering alongside Upper Whitefish Road last week in the Stillwater not far from Olney, about 50 people stood beside an informational kiosk explaining the history of the property and its return to the state forest. Just a short distance down the road, a blue sign proclaims the entrance to the land included in the conservation easement.
The Trust for Public Land began several years ago proposing to preserve the chunk of forestland protecting it from likely development, but that couldn’t have happened without a willing landowner, says Dick Dolan, Northern Rockies Director for TPL. That landowner came first through Plum Creek and later Weyerhaeuser after it took over ownership when the companies merged, giving TPL the first option to buy and conserve the property.
The property had long been viewed as a priority for land conservation as an important protection for critical fish and wildlife habitat, public access and recreational opportunities, while also promoting sustainable forest management.
“This is not just about conservation, it’s not just about recreation, it’s not just about timber management — it’s all of those stacked on top of each other,” Dolan said. “These projects find that sweet spot and we’re delivering the things that the people of Montana want.”
The state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and The Trust for Public Land worked together to purchase and conserve the property.
The project was completed in three phases — the Lazy Creek phases and the Swift Creek phase. The state Land Board approved all three phases.
The property in the easement will be managed under DNRC with its mission to administer state trust lands to generate revenue to benefit state schools.
“Trust lands is out there everyday making money for our school children,” Tubbs noted. “The easement allows us to provide timber off this landscape and protect it through good stewardship. Being able to get board feet of timber off the land is also important to supporting the economy of northwest Montana.”
While DNRC owns the property, FWP holds the conservation easement on two phases, and Bonneville Power Administration purchased the final phase with the conservation easement being held on that section by the federal government.
Alan Woods, science program supervisor for FWP’s Region 1, says FWP was happy to participate in the project by holding the conservation easement, and thanked DNRC for being willing to own the property.
“FWP does this all the time,” he said. “Statewide we hold conservation easements on about a half-million acres of property.”
As many other speakers during the gathering did, Woods thanked all of the partners involved in the project but also noted that the project was at risk of dying many times throughout the process, but each partner provided key support to keep it alive.
Montana Sens. Republican Steve Daines and Democrat Jon Tester both supported the project and sent representatives last week to read letters from them during the gathering.
Funding for the conservation easement came as a result of $5.5 million in land banking and $34.5 million came from other sources including private and public funding sources, according to DNRC.
Federal funding from the Land and Water Conservation Fund was provided to the project through the U.S. Forest Service’s 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.