Community forest possible for Blackfoot conservation project

Clearwater-Blackfoot Project (Courtesy of The Nature Conservancy)


One year ago this week, The Nature Conservancy announced its purchase of 117,000 acres of land in the lower Blackfoot River watershed from Plum Creek for $85 million.

Acquisition of the Clearwater-Blackfoot Project was hailed as a conservation victory, one that came seven years after the group conserved 310,000 acres upriver in the Montana Legacy Project.

Excluding its latest purchase, The Nature Conservancy has secured roughly 530,000 acres across two states, and all but 20,000 acres have been sold to state and federal public land agencies, the group told Missoula County commissioners on Monday.

“We expect something very similar to happen with the Clearwater-Blackfoot Project,” said Chris Bryant, the conservancy’s land protection specialist. “We expect to dive deeper this year into who potentially would be owning the ground in the future.”

Over the past year, Bryant said, the conservancy has worked with various partners to conduct winter tracking surveys across portions of the project area while setting new goals for aquatic restoration.

As it looks to divest its holdings in the Clearwater-Blackfoot Project, the conservancy may also look to establish a community forest. The Blackfoot Challenge created a similar project on 5,000 acres north of Ovando with positive results.

“We’ve seen a lot of interest in doing something similar to that along this footprint,” said Bryant. “We’ve commissioned a study with the universities of Montana and Washington to look at some different community ownership models in the West, and at how those are governed and how they were funded.”

Bryant said the conservancy has been busy assessing its new holding and how people use the land, which stretches from north of Missoula up through Seeley Lake and the Marshall Creek Wildlife Management Area.

Many of the snowmobile trails around Seeley Lake are permitted on land included in the project. It includes several grazing leases, and interest in wood management remains strong. The project area holds 40,000 acres of larch forest, Bryant said.

“Larch forest really needs to be thinned so they can release,” he said. “We expect to do a fair amount of that under our ownership. But you have to balance the lynx habitat. You have to be careful of how and where you do that thinning.”

Bryant said the conservancy is working to prioritize its goals for aquatic restoration, and what it can do while it still owns the property. Last summer, he said, the conservancy completed a road and stream inventory, and it worked to fix blocked culverts.

“There’s about 1,200 miles of roads out there,” he said. “About 150 miles of those roads are open roads. The rest are gated and in various states of growing back or eroding. But the road infrastructure is in good shape.

The conservancy also asked the Southwestern Crown Collaborative to extend its winter tracking survey into the project area. The results turned up lynx and wolverine, along with “all sorts of critters high to low.”

While the studies determine the project area’s wildlife, resource and recreational value, Bryant said, the conservancy is working to sell the land to the right owners. They’ve found one buyer in the Bureau of Land Management for a small section north of Potomac.

“We’re working with them right now to use some of that money to convey 5,000 to 6,000 acres north of this (Blackfoot) river corridor, adding a norther tier onto the BLM parcel,” he said. “We expect to close that maybe mid summer.”