Finding Common Ground

Posted: March 7, 2012

Source: Flathead Beacon

Yaak River, MontanaDeep in northwestern Montana near the Idaho border, an expansive 28,000-acre conservation easement proposal is bringing together a diverse group of interests, with conservationists, loggers, wildlife managers and outdoor enthusiasts discovering they can all agree on a common vision: protecting working forestland from development while keeping it open to publicrecreation.

Thanks to a recent $6.5 million federal grant, their vision is inching, if not accelerating, toward becoming a reality.

Coordinators for the Stimson Forestlands Conservation Project believe the easement could serve as an example of how land can be shared for both conservation and commercial purposes, modeled after nearby easements in the Fisher and Thompson river valleys, along with an easement in the Swan Valley.

Those other projects all involved Plum Creek Timber Company land. But Barry Dexter, a land manager for Stimson Lumber Company, said the proposed 28,000-acre easement in Lincoln County is “uncharted territory for us.

“This is really our first full-scale conservation easement,” Dexter said.

Mired in a slumping timber market, Stimson and other timber companies have been looking to either sell off land or find a financially viable way to maintain ownership. Stimson, based out Portland, Ore., has historically operated throughout western Montana and once had a mill in Libby that is now shuttered.

After being approached about a conservation easement, Dexter said Stimson researched the idea and decided it was in the best interest of both the company and the public.

“The last thing we wanted to do was have to subdivide that property and have to sell it off,” Dexter said. “There’s so much subdividing that’s gone on over the past 10 years in Montana and Idaho and really over the West.”

Stimson is working with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the Trust for Public Land on creating the easement, which would permanently safeguard a large chunk of valuable land surrounding Troy from development, while continuing public access and timber harvest rights.

The land, much of which is located only minutes from Troy, is a popular destination for a number of recreational activities, including hunting, fishing, berry picking and hiking. It is also crucial habitat for threatened Cabinet-Yaak grizzly bears, bull trout and redband trout, Montana’s only native species of rainbow trout. The Kootenai River and tributaries run through the property.

Deb Love, the Trust for Public Land’s Northern Rockies director in Bozeman, notes that many conservation easements, such as those on private ranchlands, don’t provide a right to public access. For this reason, as well as the location’s ecological importance, Love said the Stimson easement is distinctive, especially considering that logging fits into the equation.

“It really is a win-win for everybody,” Love said. “You are ensuring working land and protecting wildlife and ensuring public access.”

Under the easement, Stimson will continue to own the land and harvest timber. The Trust for Public Land is helping broker the deal by coordinating with an array of groups and working with Stimson on the easement’s terms. FWP will hold the easement and be responsible for monitoring and enforcing the terms.

In late January, the project received a huge boost from the U.S. Forest Service’s Forest Legacy Program, which awarded it $6.5 million derived from the Land and Water Conservation Fund. A preliminary estimate pegged the easement’s total price tag at $16 million though the final appraisal has yet to take place.

Stimson has agreed to pay 25 percent of the final price, which means that, based on the preliminary figure, $12 million must be secured to purchase the easement. With the federal grant, a total of $10.5 million has now been raised. The other $4 million came through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s habitat conservation plan land acquisition program.

Alan Wood, science program supervisor for FWP, said projects from across the country were submitted for consideration to the Forest Legacy Program. The Stimson proposal ranked fourth nationally, Wood said, qualifying it for the $6.5 million allocation.

“We were really pleased with that,” Wood said. “That was the biggest grant that we asked for from any of our funding sources.”

“If the appraisal holds up,” he added, “all we have left is $1.5 million.”

Montana Democratic Sen. Jon Tester praised the easement not only for its conservation implications but also for its potential effect on jobs, in both the outdoor recreation and timber industries. Tester’s office says outdoor recreation contributes $2.5 billion each year to Montana’s economy. The senator is co-chairman of the Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus.

“This is a powerful investment in Montana’s outdoor heritage because it strengthens our access to public land and water in one of Montana’s best places to hunt and fish,” Tester said of the $6.5 million. “This grant will create jobs, it will boost Lincoln County’s economy, and improve the health of thousands of acres of forest land.”

Don Clark, president of the Libby Rod and Gun Club, said he isn’t a fan of conservation easements that lock up land privately, but he supports the Stimson project because of its commitment to public access. More people, often retirees, have been moving to the area and purchasing land in recent years, Clark said. He’s concerned about maintaining the region’s rural character.

“This helps keep things a little more small-townish,” Clark said of the easement. “We’re kind of a slow-paced, almost rural setting here and I like that. If you take this 28,000 acres and you sell it all, then you might get too much immigration and these people who move in want to make it like where they came from and that changes things for locals. I don’t want that.”

The proposal has received widespread support from the community, project coordinators say, mostly because everybody seems to agree on the importance of public access on undeveloped lands. Wood said locals have seen first-hand the consequences of forestland turning into subdivisions. When Plum Creek sold the 28,000 acres to Stimson in 2003, it also sold another chunk of land to a developer, who then subdivided it, Wood said.

“Those folks in Troy saw what happened there in terms of access,” he said.

Love said many residents of western Montana don’t realize that some land they’ve traditionally used for recreation is actually private because property owners like Plum Creek and Stimson have always allowed public access.

“I think once the local community realized the land wasn’t protected, they were in favor of the easement,” Love said of the Stimson project.

The Fisher and Thompson easements, which are a combined 142,000 acres, and the Swan easement – all held by FWP – offer precedent for the Stimson project. Unlike the 310,000-acre Montana Legacy Project, considered the largest land purchase for conservation purposes in U.S. history, these easements leave the property under the same ownership to be used for commercial purposes.

Public scoping meetings were held last fall and more meetings will likely be scheduled in the summer, Wood said, with a tentative timeline of closing the deal by fall. Based on the positive feedback so far, the project seems unlikely to meet much opposition.

“We’re all working together for the common good,” Stimson’s Dexter said. “We all want to be good neighbors.”