Conservation project complete adding acreage to Stillwater

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  • The addition to the Stillwater State Forest includes a mix of meadows, streams, small lakes and ponds and forest. The land is part of the Whitefish Lake Watershed Project. (Chris Peterson/Whitefish Pilot)

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  • The addition to the Stillwater State Forest includes a mix of meadows, streams, small lakes and ponds and forest. The land is part of the Whitefish Lake Watershed Project. (Chris Peterson/Whitefish Pilot)

  • 1

The Whitefish Lake Watershed Project that adds a total of 13,400 acres to the Stillwater State Forest and protects that land through multi-phase conservation easements has been completed.

The Trust for Public Land, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, and Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation on Friday announced the completion of the final phase of the deal that officials say protects important fish and wildlife habitat, public access and recreational opportunities while also promoting sustainable forest management.

Years in the making, the Whitefish Lake Watershed Project places what had been private timberland northwest of Whitefish Lake into conservation easements. The project was completed in three phases through a series of complex land deals that places management of the land under the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.

“This is a historic moment for DNRC,” DNRC Director John Tubbs said in a statement. “The acquisition of these lands brings them back into state Trust Land ownership. I want to thank all involved, including the team at DNRC that spent innumerable hours working through the purchase and closing and the teams at FWP, TPL and all of our partners.”

Tubbs also thanked Weyerhaeuser for “their willingness to work with all of us to form a conservation legacy for Montana in the Stillwater State Forest.”

Seattle-based timber company Weyerhaeuser previously decided to sell the property, but agreed to give the Trust for Public Land the first option to buy and conserve it. Public and private funding have paved the way for the project to preserve the forestland.

This block of land has been a gap in the state forest since it was sold by Montana in the early 20th century, according to a release, and has been long viewed as a priority for public land conservation by reconnecting the original ownership of the land.

FWP holds the conservation easement on the first two phases, known as the Lazy Creek phases, which were completed earlier this year. The final phase along Swift Creek was purchased by the Bonneville Power Administration with ownership donated to DNRC, and the conservation easement being held on that section by the federal government.

The easements ensure sustainable forest management, public access and public recreation opportunities while removing development rights. It also protects local forestry jobs, clean water, public access for outdoor recreation and important habitat for fish and wildlife, including grizzly bears, Canada lynx, and westslope cutthroat trout, according to a release.

“This property includes an incredibly diverse mix of forest, meadow, wetland and streams that are crucial for iconic species like grizzly bears and popular game species like white-tailed deer,” said Alan Wood, Science Program Supervisor for FWP in a statement. “We appreciate Weyerhaeuser’s history of stewardship on this property and their patience while all the partners worked to make this project happen.”

The Bonneville Power Administration Fisheries Mitigation Program paid $10.68 million for the final phase of the project, which was approved by the state Land Board in September.

The completion of the final phase was also possible to a $4 million grant from the USDA Forest Service’s Forest Legacy Program and a $2 million grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Cooperative Endangered Species Conservation Fund program, according to the Trust for Public Land. Both programs are derived from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which expired at the end of September.

“This project represents why LWCF is so vital,” said Kristin Kovalik, senior project manager with The Trust for Public Land. “Thanks to the Forest Legacy Program and Cooperative Endangered Species Conservation Fund program, we were able to protect important habitat and provide public access to land that makes Montana such a special place.”

In February, the first phase was completed with $15.5 million in funding. Federal funding from the Land and Water Conservation Fund was provided to the project through the USDA 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.

Funding for the second phase worth $6.5 million was secured in May also by the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the U.S. Forest Service’s Forest Legacy Program and the state’s Habitat Montana program.

Montana’s Congressional delegation supported the conservation project.

“The Stillwater Forest Legacy Project is the kind of collaborative action that strengthens our public lands and boosts out growing outdoor economy,” Democrat U.S. Sen. Jon Tester said. “This good news further underscores the urgent need to permanently authorize and fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund so Montanans can continue to build on our outdoor way of life and preserve it for future generations.”

“After years of work, this great project that expands public access, recreation and conservation of our public lands will now be completed,” Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines said. “This project is just one more example of the importance of LWCF to Montana. I will continue to fight for permanent reauthorization and full funding of this important program.”

“Nearing completion, this project promises to increase public access to our public lands and is another example of what LWCF can do. LWCF is important to Montanans, and I’ll continue working to make sure it’s permanently reauthorized,” said Republican Congressman Greg Gianforte.

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