Large swath of Weyerhaueser land in western Montana to be protected as wildlife refuge
Another 60 square-miles of former Weyerhaeuser timberland halfway between Kalispell and Libby has been saved from development, thanks to a land trust and federal funding.
The Trust for Public Land this week announced that it had finalized a conservation easement with landowner Southern Pine Plantations to permanently protect about 38,000 acres within the 100,000 acre Lost Trail Conservation Area. The conservation easement lies along the northern border of the Lost Trail National Wildlife Refuge, providing a buffer, and extends about 18 miles north to cover the eastern portion of the Lost Trail Conservation Area.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will hold the conservation easement and, on Wednesday, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland announced the Lost Trail Conservation Area would become the newest unit of the National Wildlife Refuge System.
“The Lost Trail Conservation Area will help guarantee that future generations have access to the same woods and waters as we enjoy today for hunting, fishing, hiking and wildlife viewing,” Haaland said in a release. “National wildlife refuges are one of the most important ways that we can connect all Americans to public lands with little to no entry fees. I am grateful to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and its partners for the locally led collaboration that led to this important milestone.”
The price of the easement was not disclosed, but funding came from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund. In fiscal year 2020, the Lost Trail Conservation Area received $2.85 million from the Forest Legacy Fund of the LWCF.
Dick Dolan, Trust for Public Land Northern Rockies director, said the deal would not have been possible without the generous partnership and conservation mindset of Southern Pine Plantations, the Georgia-based business that bought 630,000 acres of private timberland in Montana from Weyerhaueser in December 2019 for $145 million.
“We at Trust for Public Land want to extend a heartfelt thank you to all the partners who have made this conservation success a reality,” Dolan said. “This project wouldn’t have been possible if not for the vision and follow through of Southern Pine Plantations and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Their commitment to protecting the landscapes and heritage of which make Montana so special is commendable and should be applauded.”
Even though Weyerhaueser had already placed conservation easements on 100,000 acres, Montanans were nervous when they initially heard the Weyerhaueser property had been sold, imagining the rest of it being divided into thousands of residential lots and sold off.
Groups like Montana Backcountry Hunters and Anglers were relieved to learn Southern Pine Plantations was willing to listen to locals’ concerns and preserve much of the open lands and opportunity that had existed before.
“Acquisitions of new refuge system conservation easements provide an invaluable resource to members of the public, particularly as our lands and waters face increasing pressure from recreational users,” said Montana BHA Chapter Coordinator Kevin Farron. “Conserving our lands and protecting public access in perpetuity helps absorb recreational pressures while enhancing the natural resource user experience.”
The conservation easement allows Southern Pine Plantations to continue to harvest timber while providing permanent public access to forested lands where Weyerhaueser, and Plum Creek Timber Company before that, allowed locals to hunt and recreate for decades. The easement will preserve wildlife habitat, keeping large sections intact and connected to the surrounding Flathead and Kootenai national forests. Such continuous wildlands are particularly important for grizzly bears trying to migrate between the Bob Marshall Wilderness and the Cabinet-Yaak ecosystem.
In developing its land protection plan, which sets requirements for timber harvest and recreation, the Fish and Wildlife Service consulted with Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes on prioritizing important wildlife habitat in the area and its connection to tribal conservation lands, as well as with the state of Montana to connect landscape-level conservation efforts.
“The Service is grateful for incredible partnerships with the Trust for Public Land and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes,” said Martha Williams, Fish and Wildlife Service director and former director of Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks. “Locally-led conservation efforts such as this provide a lasting impact on our efforts to protect crucial wildlife habitat for threatened, endangered and priority species while prioritizing recreational access.”
Dolan said he focused on conserving the eastern 38,000 acres because it was more threatened by development threats from the Flathead Valley but also it protects the northern edge of the Lost Trail National Wildlife Refuge. Seven miles along the southern edge and the western border were protected in December 2020 when the Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks commission approved a FWP conservation easement on 7,256 acres of private land. Funding for that easement also came from the U.S. Forest Service Legacy Program, plus Habitat Montana and the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Trust.
But the Lost Trail Conservation Area effort isn’t complete. When the Fish and Wildlife Service finished an environmental impact statement in March 2021 to create the area, the designation provided “the opportunity to continue working with private landowners and conservation partners to protect up to 100,000 acres through the use of conservation easements.”
Between 10,000 and 15,000 acres of land along the northwest side of the area still belongs wholly to Southern Pine Plantations. It is likely that an easement on that land is waiting for another round of funding. More private land sections cover the southern portion of the area.
“Of the 100,000 acres designated under The Lost Trail Conservation Area, this is 38% and is the first part of TPL’s efforts. We are currently working with (the Fish and Wildlife Service) and adjacent private landowners on a second phase – with the goal of protecting additional acreage within the Conservation Area,” Dolan said.
This conservation easement complements and builds on efforts that have conserved more than 350,000 acres in the area over the last 20 years. Other projects include the nearby 142,200-acre Thompson-Fisher Conservation Easement, the recently completed 27,289-acre Kootenai Forestlands Phase II Conservation Easement, and the future 115,000-acre Montana Great Outdoors Project currently being negotiated by Trust for Public Land on Southern Pine Plantations land just to the southwest of the Lost Trail Conservation Area.
"SPP Montana fully understands the compelling need to preserve both a viable timber industry and recreational access for the people of Montana. Partnering with Trust for Public Lands and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, we have preserved this property as forever wild and forever accessible,” said Benjy Griffith, President of SPP Montana.
Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at email@example.com.