Obama proposes $29M in Montana land conservation projects

2012-03-08T06:45:00Z 2012-03-08T07:19:53Z Obama proposes $29M in Montana land conservation projectsBy ROB CHANEY of the Missoulian missoulian.com
March 08, 2012 6:45 am  • 

Montana acreage ranks high on President Barack Obama’s wish list for 2013 landscape conservation initiatives, including possible additions to Glacier National Park, conservation easements in the Blackfoot Valley and the Rocky Mountain Front, and completion of the Montana Legacy Project.

“The fact this has risen to this level, with a White House conference last week, is really important,” said Greg Neudecker, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service staff member and vice chairman of the Blackfoot Challenge. “The president and secretary of Interior were very complimentary of what folks in the Crown of the Continent have been doing here. It’s great to see them latching on to community conservation.”

Ovando rancher Jim Stone visited with Obama and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar last Friday at the White House Conservation Conference in Washington, D.C. The meeting grew out of the president’s new America’s Great Outdoors Initiative, which kicked off last year in Ovando before going nationwide.

“That’s one of the things we’ve been missing for a lot of years here is the ability to interact with the administration,” Stone said. “That was one of our initial requests – if you want to talk large landscapes, we need to be able to touch base with folks inside the administration. Now I think these guys are listening to folks out on the ground.”

Obama released his proposal for 2013 land acquisitions through the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which uses federal royalties from offshore oil and gas production to improve public lands. Montana features in National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service and Forest Service budgets to a total of roughly $29 million.

Conservation easements to keep farms and ranches from subdivision in the Blackfoot, Swan and Rocky Mountain Front would receive $19.7 million in 2013. More than 30,000 acres of private land would be kept in agricultural production through the easements, which also benefit wildlife habitat.

The National Park Service requested $3.3 million to acquire 318 acres of inholdings along the Middle and North Forks of the Flathead River. One of those is the 120-acre Doody Homestead along the Middle Fork, the colorfully historic home of an early park ranger and his moonshiner wife.

Glacier spokeswoman Denise Germann said the park has long been trying to acquire private inholdings whenever willing sellers appear. But having the support from community groups throughout the Crown of the Continent makes the process much easier.

“We’re pleased to see that now and the value that’s put on conservation of lands,” Germann said of the president’s budget proposal. “I would anticipate that may change before it’s a final budget. Congress has to agree to all this.”

The National Parks Conservation Association was one of those groups advocating for the Doody acquisition. Spokesman Michael Jamison said the long-term commitment was essential to building credibility for the project.

“If you love Glacier Park, then you have to be excited about this investment,” Jamison said. “Purchasing these important inholdings has been a top priority for the Park Service for a long time, and with the help of community leaders and friends-of-the-park groups, the funding is finally being made available. It really does represent a step toward completing the work that was started 100 years ago, when Glacier was first established.”

***

Montana’s congressional delegation offered mixed reviews of the proposed spending. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., said he supported raising the Land and Water Conservation Fund budget to its allowed $322 million and approved of the Montana projects.

“Access to public lands is a top priority for Montana’s hunters and anglers,” Tester said in an email. “The Land and Water Conservation Fund is a popular, smart investment because it provides Montana’s sportsmen and women with access to good hunting and fishing opportunities.”

Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., said he was still looking over the president’s wish list.

“We’ve got more government than we can afford,” Rehberg said in an email. “And that means we’ve got to set priorities, and learn to say ‘no’ so we can say ‘yes’ to the things that Montanans care about most.”

Some of those priorities already have received funding, although they have several years left to complete. For example, the Montana Legacy Project transferred 310,000 acres of Plum Creek Timber Co. land into public and conservation hands in three phases. The president’s budget calls for $14.8 million to complete another portion of that deal in the Swan Valley.

“Those parcels in the Swan are higher value than some of the other timber lands,” said Lolo National Forest lands program manager Jennifer Watson. “We’ve been bringing them all together as we get funding.”

A Blackfoot River special resource management area along the river corridor would get up to $5.5 million for new public land. At the Blackfoot Challenge, Neudecker stressed the money wasn’t coming from taxpayer dollars, but would still help local communities.

“It’s an extremely ambitious proposal,” Neudecker said. “I think if we’re going to be successful, we have to target resources toward the best landscapes. This is stuff we’ve collectively been working on. Landowners are supportive we just want to see it maintained. But it’s got a ways to go.”

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