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Grant inches Montana Great Outdoors Project toward $10 million goal

Chain of Lakes in northwestern Montana. (Christopher Boyer/Kestrel Aerial)

The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation announced this week that a western Montana land conservation effort was one of seven projects in seven states selected to receive a Walmart Acres for America grant.

Projects were selected based on their ability to permanently protect wildlife habitat of national significance and to benefit local communities and local economies.

The Montana Great Outdoors Project received a matching grant of $600,000 to help put conservation easements on 114,000 acres in Lincoln, Flathead and Sanders counties that used to be the checkboard property belonging to the Weyerhaeuser Company.

In December 2019, Weyerhaeuser announced it was selling 630,000 acres of its Montana timberland to Southern Pine Plantations, a Georgia-based property investment firm, for $145 million.

Employees with The Trust for Public Lands knew they had to act fast if they wanted to preserve some of the former timberlands. Weyerhaeuser had already agreed to conservation easements on 110,000 acres, which Southern Pine Plantations said it would honor.

In July 2020, the Trust for Public Lands announced that it had worked with Southern Pine Plantation subsidiary SPP Montana to create the Montana Great Outdoors Project, an effort to conserve 114,000 acres around the Thompson Lakes between Noxon and Flathead Lake.

The land would be privately owned and timber operations could continue. Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks would hold the easement so there would be permanent public access for sportsmen and recreationalists.

That project, together with the adjacent Lost Trail Conservation Area to the northeast, would conserve 200,000 of wild country surrounded by the Flathead, Kootenai and Lolo national forests.

When it comes to such large land deals, money is the limiting factor. The Trust for Public lands has to raise $30 million to buy the easements by the end of 2022.

The Montana Great Outdoors Project.

Fortunately, many see the value and need for preserving the expansive undeveloped spaces of northwestern Montana that are important to wildlife, loggers and recreationalists alike. The region is critical habitat for 46 threatened or endangered species.

After being ranked No. 1 in the nation among all the projects submitted for the U.S Forest Service Forest Legacy Program, the Montana Great Outdoors Project was awarded $20 million for fiscal year 2022. That is the largest award in the history of the project.

“That’s very telling,” said Chris Deming, Trust for Public Lands Northern Rockies Land Protection director. “I think even the Legacy Program realized the significance, the layered benefits, the size, the scale and the scope of this project.”

But that left the Trust for Public Lands needing to raise another $10 million to cover the remainder of the purchase price. The state of Montana has promised some support, in addition to some private foundations. But the Trust for Public Lands still needs more to clinch the deal. And it has only one more year to make it happen.

“We’re making great strides toward collecting the balance. But we need to continue that momentum so we can be successful by 2022,” Deming said. “This NFWF grant was a wonderful step toward ultimate success. We hope other individuals, foundations and corporations will see this as more evidence of the priority of the project and they’ll continue to support us.”

This isn’t the first National Fish and Wildlife Foundation grant the project has received, Deming said. It also received $290,000 through the foundation’s Improving Habitat Quality in Western Big Game Winter Range and Migration Corridors program in April 2020.

And just last week, another National Fish and Wildlife Foundation grant helped the Trust for Public Lands finalize a 27,000-acre conservation easement on Stimson Lumber land southeast of Libby as part of the Kootenai Forestlands Conservation Project.

“NFWF is one of these private funding sources that has been extremely helpful in getting these projects done,” Deming said. “They’re sort of a close-the-gap type of funding that really helps us make the larger opportunity work. But for their support, these projects might not happen.”

Congress created the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation in 1984 to work with the public and private sectors to protect and restore imperiled species, promote healthy oceans and estuaries, improve working landscapes for wildlife, advance sustainable fisheries and conserve water for wildlife and people.

The Acres for America grants began in 2005 when Walmart made an initial 10-year, $35 million commitment to purchase and preserve an acre of wildlife habitat for every acre of land developed by the company. Over the past 17 years, Acres for America has funded more than 100 projects to protect more than 1.8 million acres.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.