Federal officials are proposing 100,000 acres of conservation easements in Northwest Montana to maintain public access on recently sold private timber lands.
Late last year, Weyerhaeuser announced the sale of about 630,000 acres of its timber lands. With most of the acreage between Kalispell and Libby, local county officials raised concerns about whether the new owner, Southern Pine Plantations, would subdivide and sell the land.
If they did, it would eliminate decades of public access for recreation and logging.
Now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing a roughly 100,000-acre conservation easement known as the Lost Trail Conservation Area, which would border the Lost Trail National Wildlife Refuge.
The easement would keep the acreage under private ownership. It would also preserve public access and commercial timber projects while preventing housing and commercial developments in perpetuity.
Southern Pine’s Mike Moody expressed his company’s reaction to the proposal
“That area surrounds mostly ground that we own, so we’re excited that – if it were established – that we’d have another tool in the toolbox, so to speak, of preserving acreage,” he said.
The federal agency’s proposal would utilize federal Land and Water Conservation Fund dollars to pay private landowners, namely Southern Pine, for permanent easements.
This comes as a bill aimed at fully funding the program moves through Congress. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said the proposal would benefit from the legislation, but is not dependent on it passing.
Moody said Southern Pine will talk to USFW about potential easements once the conservation area is established. The company is already in talks with Montana officials about a similar 7,200-acre easement that would fall within the larger conservation area.
Land conservation groups that are either involved in or closely monitoring the issue say the easement would be a win-win for all sides. Flathead County Commissioner Randy Brodehl’s district covers some of the land, and he agrees.
“It would keep it on the tax rolls, it would keep it being managed in a way that would allow logging…and would assure that the public has the same access that it currently has,” he said.
The county commission will likely vote on whether to support the measure in the coming weeks, according to Brodehl. Lincoln County commissioners are still digesting the proposal, but Commissioner Mark Peck said he would also support the easement, so long as it maintains public access and management for timber.
Public comment runs through Aug. 6.