Montana: Conservation easement largest in state history

By SHERRY DEVLIN of the Missoulian


142,000 acres along Thompson, Fisher river valleys set aside

Conservationists, Plum Creek Timber Co. and state fish and wildlife officials on Tuesday announced completion of a $34 million, seven-year effort to protect from development 142,000 acres in the Thompson and Fisher river valleys of northwestern Montana.

The set-aside is the largest conservation easement in Montana history.

Brokered by the Trust for Public Lands, the easement protects a wide swath of Plum Creek's commercial timberland from subdivision, but allows continued timber management and logging.

The deal also preserves public access to the land for hunting, fishing and other recreation.

"Flathead, Sanders and Lincoln counties, where the project is located, are among the state's fastest-growing areas," said David Genter, TPL's program director in Montana.

Already, he said, the loss of open space "has changed the rural character, diminished access to recreational lands and impacted quality of life.

"Future generations will be thankful for the foresight and efforts of local citizens and political leaders to protect these lands."

Because of the $34 million price tag placed on Plum Creek's lost development rights, funding came from a wide variety of sources. Largest of the contributors - at $16 million - was the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Forest Legacy Program.

Another $9 million was provided through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Habitat Conservation Plan Land Acquisition grant program, and $6 million came from Montana's Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

"This project has had the enthusiastic and sustained support of hunters and anglers," said Dan Vincent, FWP's regional supervisor. "We are pleased to see its completion."

Plum Creek also made a $1.6 million donation to the project, and the Bonneville Power Administration contributed $1.5 million toward fisheries habitat protection in the Fisher River drainage.

Tom Ray, Plum Creek's general manager, explained his company's interest in the deal: "We recognize that multiple conservation values can be maintained alongside our long-term management objectives for the production of wood fiber. We look forward to investigating other opportunities for collaborative approaches to maintain habitat protection and public recreation opportunities on Plum Creek forest lands."

In a written statement, Sanders County Commissioner Carol Brooker emphasized the importance of preserving the commercial timberland.

"By maintaining these lands in forest production, we can prevent the encroachment of residences into the forests and avoid the obligations of providing services to isolated rural-recreational development," Brooker said. "This summer's fire season is a persuasive reminder that placing homes in the forest environment creates unnecessary threats to public safety and private property, and places an extreme burden on the taxpayers."

The Thompson and Fisher river valleys are also the wintertime home to northwest Montana's largest elk herd.

The easement will help other wildlife species as well, Genter said, including deer, moose, bighorn sheep, grizzly bears, native fisheries, bald eagles and several species of furbearers.


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