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Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks seeks public input on ambitious conservation easement proposal

Helena, Montana – Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) is currently seeking feedback from the public on a new initiative. This project proposes to secure nearly 33,000 acres of private timberland in northwest Montana with a conservation easement. The aim is to preserve working lands, ensure public access for recreation, and safeguard wildlife habitats. People interested in sharing their views can do so until May 15 by visiting the FWP website.

FWP has released a draft environmental assessment detailing this initiative, known as the Montana Great Outdoors Conservation Easement. This first phase is part of a larger plan that could eventually cover 85,792 acres of private timberland, also prioritizing fish and wildlife preservation. The land is owned by Green Diamond Resource Company.

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This initial phase would protect forest areas between Kalispell and Libby, in the Salish and Cabinet mountains. The land, reaching elevations from 3,000 feet near Cow Creek to 6,300 feet at Bar Z Peak, features mainly Douglas-fir and various other conifer trees, interspersed with long valleys and wet meadows. The terrain and vegetation vary significantly with the elevation and orientation of the slopes.

At lower elevations and on south-facing slopes, dry ponderosa pine forests are common, while shade-loving species like grand fir and subalpine fir dominate the cooler, north-facing areas and higher terrains. Near water sources, one often finds Engelmann spruce and western red cedar in the riparian zones. Key waterways within the area include the Thompson River, Indian Creek, Twin Lakes Creek, and Wolf Creek. This area is particularly valued for its rich public hunting and fishing opportunities, which would be permanently protected under this conservation proposal.

This initiative aims to preserve key wildlife areas including winter ranges and travel paths for elk, mule deer, white-tailed deer, and moose. It also seeks to protect essential habitats for the grizzly bear and Canada lynx, which are federally recognized as threatened species. Additionally, the project would safeguard the habitats of the westslope cutthroat trout and Columbia River redband trout, both of which are considered Species of Concern in Montana.

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Should the project receive approval, the ownership of the land would remain with Green Diamond, but it would be managed under a conservation easement held by FWP. This arrangement would allow Green Diamond to continue sustainable logging practices while preventing any development on the land. The easement would ensure the preservation of vital wildlife habitats and landscape connectivity, and it would guarantee ongoing public access to these lands at no cost.

The funding for this project would potentially come from several sources, including the U.S. Forest Service Forest Legacy Program, the Habitat Montana program, and contributions raised by the Trust for Public Land. Additionally, Green Diamond would offer an in-kind contribution by donating the value gained from the easement sale of the land.

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In 2019, Weyerhaeuser sold its entire 630,000-acre Montana holdings to Southern Pine Plantations (SPP). Over the next few years, in 2021 and 2022, SPP sold 475,000 acres to various owners. The largest portion, 291,000 acres, was acquired by Green Diamond Resource Company. This area includes the lands targeted for both Phase 1 and Phase 2 of the Montana Great Outdoors Conservation Easement project.

Historically, these lands have been under the ownership of mining and timber companies as well as private landowners who have permitted public access through either temporary Block Management agreements or voluntary policies for open land.

The completion of this project would complement existing conservation efforts, such as the nearby 142,000-acre Thompson-Fisher Conservation Easement managed by FWP, the 100,000-acre USFWS Lost Trail Conservation Area, and other protected areas like the Kootenai and Lolo national forests, the Thompson Chain of Lakes State Park, and lands overseen by the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.

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FWP will evaluate public feedback on this proposal and submit a recommendation to the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission during the summer. If endorsed, the final approval will be sought from the Montana Land Board.

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