Land west of Missoula that once belonged to Weyerhaeuser could become national forest land if efforts to get federal funding are successful. But it’s just one piece of former Weyerhaeuser land that’s getting new ownership.
On Tuesday, the Missoula County commission voted to send a letter to the Lolo National Forest and the U.S. Forest Service Region 1 voicing their support for the possible USFS acquisition of more than 18,000 acres in the Deep Creek area south of Frenchtown on the west side of the Clark Fork River.
The USFS needs to show there’s local support from county commissioners and other groups for what it’s dubbed the Missoula Valley Frontcountry Access Project so it can apply for funding from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund.
Commissioner Josh Slotnik said supporting the LWCF application is a first big step toward turning the Deep Creek area into something other than the occasional problem spot it is today.
“It may take 20 years, but someday, there will be 150,000 people living in Missoula County and the urban area will be a lot larger and we’ll need more recreational areas than we have,” Slotnik said. “And someday, Deep Creek will be more than a place you go to burn an appliance or shoot some tires. It’ll actually be a place to go mountain biking, hiking, (and) all those other outdoor pursuits. And this is a big step in making that a reality.”
According to property records, some of the 640-acre sections among the 40 parcels have been appraised at about $250,000.
Lolo National Forest reality specialist Patrick Bridegam said the property is still being appraised, so he doesn’t have a cost estimate yet. But the idea is to get enough LWCF money to pay the full price.
He’s working on the LWCF application, which is due to the Region 1 headquarters by Oct. 22. There, it will compete with other projects in Region 1, and later, it could compete with national projects. Fortunately, the Missoula Valley project has a lot of the qualities that LWCF committees look for, including recreational access and land and water protection.
An announcement should come out in about a year if the project is selected for funding in fiscal year 2022. The chance of getting funding is better now that the LWCF is fully funded every year with $900 million raised from offshore oil royalties.
It turns out that the opportunity to turn the Deep Creek area into public land is part of the larger story of the Weyerhaeuser land sale announced last December.
Before that, Catherine Schmidt, field representative for The Trust for Public Land, started working with the Lolo National Forest and Weyerhaeuser in 2018 on buying the company’s land west of Lolo along U.S. Highway 12 for the Lolo Trails Landmark Project.
Over the following months, she was able to develop a good relationship with the company and started exploring other opportunities. But then, Weyerhaeuser sold its 630,000 acres throughout western Montana to Georgia-based Southern Pine Plantation, which now calls itself “SPP Montana” when dealing with its Montana property. Fortunately, SPP Montana has honored the contracts Weyerhaeuser already signed with The Trust for Public Land and the Forest Service
The Deep Creek property wasn’t one of those original contracts, but the Trust for Public Land thought it would be another good public land possibility, Schmidt said.
“We knew that it was really important both recreation ground for the Missoula community as well as tons of habitat for wildlife and tons of rich water resources,” Schmidt said. “SPP, at the time that they purchased Weyerhaeuser’s land in Montana, had also purchased this block of land. After working with them for a little bit on Lolo and after making sure they were comfortable working with us and the Forest Service, we approached them to see if they would also be willing to work with us on this Missoula Valley Frontcountry Access Project. Fortunately, they said yes.”
The thing to remember is that all of this has evolved since December. The Weyerhaeuser sale closed in March, and The Trust for Public Land knew it had to act fast if it was going to save much of the Weyerhaeuser land from possible housing development.
In spite of its name, Southern Pine Plantation is not really a timber company; it’s an investment company that touts its ability to “move fast on acquisition opportunities,” according to its website. It buys large expensive property and turns it around, often selling it off piecemeal.
Weyerhaeuser already placed conservation easements on about 110,000 acres near Libby and along the upper Thompson River about 15 years ago. But hunters and recreationalists worried about the rest of the property, because Weyerhaeuser had a Block Management agreement with Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks for hunting and allowed public access on much of its land. That could change, depending on who bought the property.
In addition to pursuing the Missoula Valley Frontcountry Access Project, the land trust announced in July that it was working with SPP Montana on The Montana Great Outdoors Project, an effort to place a conservation easement on nearly 130,000 acres around the Thompson Lakes west of Kalispell. The land would be privately owned and timber operations could continue. FWP would hold the easement so there would be permanent public access for sportsmen and recreationalists.
“FWP is excited to be a partner in this effort to secure a resilient, connected, working landscape that would provide benefits to the timber industry, wildlife habitat and public recreation access in perpetuity. Thank you to SPP and TPL for allowing us an opportunity to help see this come to fruition,” Jim Williams, FWP Region 1 supervisor, said in a statement.
In addition, on about 100,000 acres surrounding the Lost Trail National Wildlife Refuge just northeast of the Montana Great Outdoors Project, The Trust for Public Land is working to create The Lost Trail Conservation Area, another conservation easement that would be held by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. This area includes about 70,000 acres of SPP Montana land and the rest would depend on willing landowners. FWP is considering buying an easement on 7,256 acres just south of the refuge.
However, these easements probably won’t use as much LWCF money, so private philanthropy will be critical, and there’s only a small window of time to raise these funds.
Adding it all up, the easements still account for only about half of the SPP Montana property. What about the rest?
That question plagued Plains outdoorsman and conservationist Zach Whipple-Kilmer, who was worried about western Montana losing its rural character.
He suspected SPP Montana wouldn’t keep the land for long, so earlier this year, he started asking around to see if anyone knew about land sales.
“There was nothing much out there. People were as much in the dark as I was,” Whipple-Kilmer said.
When Whipple-Kilmer saw the announcement about the Montana Great Outdoors Project, he called FWP supervisor Williams, who told him that a company called MKH Montana had taken over the Weyerhaeuser Block Management agreement on 11,000 acres south of Plains.
It turns out that MKH Montana has bought an estimated 51,000 acres of scattered SPP Montana land, including the Missoula Valley Frontcountry Access Project land, which was purchased on Aug. 12.
It’s not clear what MKH Montana is. Just like SPP Montana, it’s likely a subsidiary of a larger company created to operate only in Montana.
MKH Montana LLC was first registered as a business in Dover, Del., on July 28. However, Montana property records of the Deer Creek property list a Longview, Texas, address for MKH Montana but no other information is included.
Whipple-Kilmer is worried about what will happen to the 100,000-plus acres of SPP Montana land just north of Plains in the lower Thompson River drainage. It doesn’t appear that MKH Montana or any other company has bought that yet.
“This is the one thing that bands everybody together. Hey, we respect private property rights. But what’s going to happen to this land that we’ve had open for generations?” Whipple-Kilmer said. “They can do whatever they want with the property. But seeing Flathead Lake turn into Tahoe just doesn’t sit well with me. And Thompson Lakes. Seeing these billion-dollar homes go up around the lake where they’re keeping everybody out from being able to recreate on the lake – it’s heartbreaking.”
That’s why he and several other hunters and conservationists recently formed the Sanders County Rural Landscape Initiative to explore ways to put conservation easements on that land. The lower Thompson River area is critical bull trout habitat and serves as a migration corridor for big game and grizzly bears.
Whipple-Kilmer said easements are a win-win because they protect the land from development and allow continued public access, but the private ownership keeps property taxes flowing into the coffers of poorer regions like Sanders County.
“We out here in Sanders County get overlooked,” Whipple-Kilmer said. “I think it’s great that FWP and The Trust for Public Lands are doing this work up in Flathead and Lincoln County, and that the Lolo National Forest is taking care of stuff in Missoula. But there’s a huge chunk of open space in the lower Thompson River, and there’s a real worry that one person with the money will win out and the rest of us will suffer.”
Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at firstname.lastname@example.org.