MISSOULA — A conservation project on 28,000 acres of prime wildlife habitat in northwest Montana’s lower Kootenai River valley offers permanent access and protection to tracts of land with high conservation values, while continuing to support recreation and local timber jobs.
The land was sold Wednesday by Stimson Lumber Co. as a conservation easement to the Trust for Public Land and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, which will manage the easement. The project cost $12.8 million and means the land cannot be sold privately for subdivisions. It will remain a working forest with permanent public access and a high standard of species conservation, said Alex Diekmann of the Trust for Public Land.
“This is a real win-win for wildlife, recreating sportsmen and the local economy through timber jobs,” Diekmann said. “These lands could have fallen to a much different fate just as we’ve seen with other lands becoming subdivided under private ownership. This easement memorializes everything into perpetuity.“
The project area is near Troy and tracks along the Cabinet Mountains and the Yaak and Kootenai rivers, stretching from the south end of Bull Lake, north through the Lake Creek drainage to Troy, and then northwest along both sides of the Kootenai River to the Idaho border.
The project received wide support from local hunters and anglers, wildlife groups and other recreational users, many of whom access the area from their back doors and nearby U.S. Forest Service roads, said Jim Williams, FWP’s regional wildlife manager.
“These are accessible lands. We’re not talking about pieces of rock way up high, these areas are right outside people’s back doors,” he said.
An abundance of elk and trout make it a popular destination, he said, while other uses include hiking, mountain biking, camping, skiing, snowmobiling, wildlife viewing and horseback riding.
“This is a good land management outcome for the local communities of Troy and Libby because it conserves access and recreation on those lands, which is a big part of the quality of life for those communities,” Williams said.
The conservation easement also contains the largest block of privately owned land in the Cabinet-Yaak Grizzly Bear Recovery Area, which is one of six grizzly bear recovery zones designated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the lower 48 states.
“There are high connectivity values not only for grizzly bears, but for wide-ranging species including wolverine, elk, lynx and fisher. It’s a key stepping stone to linkage zones throughout the northern rockies,” Diekmann said.
Money to pay for the easement came from a variety of sources, including two federal funds – the Forest Service’s Forest Legacy Program and FWS’ Habitat Conservation Plan Land Acquisition grant program – as well as the Montana Fish and Wildlife Conservation Trust, and a donation of land value from Stimson Lumber Co.
The federal Forest Legacy Program provides matching grants to states to protect threatened forests with high conservation values, and ranked the Montana project near the top of its list in national importance.
The HCP grant program is funded by the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which is financed by federal revenues from energy companies drilling for oil and gas in public waters offshore. The program helps reduce the potential for conflicts between species conservation and other land uses.
Williams said interest in protecting the land with a conservation easement began nearly a decade ago, but the project gained momentum when Stimson Lumber approached the agency in 2010.
“The genesis of this story is that a private company approached the agency with creative solutions for permanent access,” Williams said.