Montana Public Radio

New Owners Promise Continued Public Access To NW Montana Timberlands

Feb 9, 2021

The owner of a large block of private timberland in northwest Montana says it’s likely done its last major land sale after a deal announced this week. Southern Pine Plantations sold 125,000 acres of timberland west of Kalispell.

The land was sold to a Texas family, owners of Goosehead Insurance. Mark Jones is the company’s chairman and CEO. He says the family will work to maintain public access to the land through Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks' block management program.

"We want to be a good neighbor, but we want to make sure that people understand that we also expect people to be good neighbors to us."

Jones says the family, along with FWP, will host a public meeting sometime this summer to help define what pieces of the land will remain open to the public. Jones says the family will also maintain ongoing timber operations into the near future.

The view southeast over the McKillop Creek Road near Libby, Montana. The land is part of the private timber lands in northwest Montana belonging to Southern Pine Plantations.
Credit Chris Boyer / Kestrelaerial.com

This may be the last major sale of what once was a nearly continuous 630,000-acre swath of timberland in Flathead, Lincoln, Sanders and Missoula counties. Southern Pine Plantations purchased the land from Weyerhaeuser early last year, raising concerns about locals being cut off from land they’d accessed to fish, hunt and recreate.

"I think there was a collective shudder running down the spine of people in Montana," says Dick Dolan with the Trust for Public Land.

Dolan said there was concern that the Weyerhaeuser sale to Southern Pine could mean much of that land would be subdivided and sold. And in part, it was. Before the more recent sale to the Jones family, Southern Pine sold nearly half of its land to Green Diamond Resource Management Company. Another roughly 60,000 acres was subdivided and sold to numerous private individuals. Southern Pine plans to maintain roughly a quarter of the land it purchased from Weyerhaeuser.

Southern Pine Plantations Montana Manager Pat Patton says the company has made good on its promise to find ways to permanently protect public access to much of the land. Patton says that’s being done through several conservation easements.

"And if those move forward and go through, then over half of that 630,000 acres will be under a conservation easement, and will have protected public access and continued logging and forest operations."

One of those easement deals has already been finalized and several more are in the works. Trust for Public Land is involved in many of those projects and is also working to purchase 30,000 acres of Southern Pine land that it would give to the Lolo National Forest. 

Dick Dolan says he’s happy with Southern Pine Plantations' efforts to conserve public land access. 

"They were serious about working with us and the people of Montana to conserve a big chunk of this, and we’re working to do that right now."

Dolan says the Trust will work with new land owners, like timber company Green Diamond, which has already committed to keeping much of its lands open to the public, to permanently protect that access for generations to come.