Public ownership of lands in the Lower Blackfoot River corridor are increasing incrementally, after the Bureau of Land Management signed paperwork this week to purchase 13,000 acres from The Nature Conservancy.
Joe Ashor, the BLM’s Missoula field manager, said the agency expects to acquire 7,300 acres for $5.6 million this year, using money from the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). The federal agency anticipates purchasing another 5,700 acres for $3.5 million in 2020, also using LWCF monies.
The goal, Ashor said, is to purchase a total of about 40,000 acres of former Plum Creek Timber property that currently is owned by The Nature Conservancy. That would bring the total amount of BLM land managed in the Blackfoot drainage to about 60,000 acres.
An environmental assessment and comment period closed June 27 on the 13,000-acre purchases, and any acquisitions beyond that will have to go through the federal environmental review process.
The nonprofit Nature Conservancy bought about 117,000 acres from Plum Creek in 2014 in the greater Blackfoot area to preserve the intact landscape and keep it from being subdivided into ranchettes. When The Nature Conservancy bought the land, the nonprofit group said it didn't intend to retain ownership, but wanted to pass it on to the state and federal public agencies.
“Right now, we have 19,000 acres in the lower Blackfoot corridor in Missoula County. That’s up from 40 acres we had 32 years ago,” Ashor said. “A couple years ago, (after the purchase by The Nature Conservancy) we put some lines on a map for which agencies might get which lands. This is the first phase for us to acquire those 40,000 acres.”
The purchased land shares boundaries with BLM-managed lands in the Lower Blackfoot River-Belmont Creek area, about 25 miles northeast of Missoula. Recreational use there is increasing due to its proximity to the rapidly growing Missoula Valley, and the proposed acquisition increases the size of amount of public lands available for hunting, fishing, hiking, mountain biking and snowmobiling.
“Expanding access to public lands for outdoor recreation is one of this administration’s highest priorities, and these acquisitions will make an enormous difference for all Americans who want to experience the beauty of the Blackfoot River and its watershed,” BLM’s Deputy Director for Policy and Programs William Perry Pendley said in a news release.
Missoula County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier called the announcement “a breath of fresh air” that returns formerly public lands that were given away decades ago in an effort to help settle the West. That historic effort created a checkerboard of ownership, with sections of public lands mixed among private railroad property that later was sold to timber companies.
“That’s what may be truly ironic,” Strohmaier said. “It’s a breath of fresh air that we can bulk up the public lands even in the context of some who would like to see fewer lands in the public estate. So I think it’s a great thing and will be a great gift to future generations of Montanans.”
Existing grazing permits will be allowed to continue, and the area is included in the Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks Block Management Program as well as the popular hunting District 283.
Chris Bryant, The Nature Conservancy’s land protection director, said in an email that the nonprofit is pleased with the upcoming land transfer.
“The LWCF (Land and Water Conservation Fund) really makes this project possible and serves as an essential tool for the kind of conservation that keeps Montana so special,” Bryant wrote in the email. “The BLM has been a great partner in western Montana and we look forward to continue working with them on forest restoration and public access.”
The LWCF monies come from development of oil and gas beneath the Outer Continental Shelf as managed by the U.S. Department of the Interior.
“The decision announced today improves and expands recreation access along Montana’s iconic Lower Blackfoot River area," U.S. Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt said in a statement. "It also exemplifies the Bureau of Land Management's multiple-use mission by maintaining working lands with active forestry and fire-management projects that will also reduce the threat of catastrophic wildfires and improve the health of the forest, consistent with the goals of Executive Order 13855."
Ashor said the BLM’s Missoula field office is one of the smallest for the agency, but 90% of its land is forested, and they have an “active” forest management division. The land being purchased eventually will be used for commercial timber harvest, but Ashor anticipates that’s 30 to 50 years out since Plum Creek logged most of the land 30 to 40 years ago.
That logging left behind a spider web of roads, and Ashor said one of the next steps is to develop a travel management plan and decide which routes to keep or to decommission.
Ashor said he and his team are grateful to local nonprofit organizations that played a big role in securing a portion of the funds that made the acquisition possible. Those include local landowners in the Blackfoot, sporting groups and key partners including the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, the Blackfoot Challenge, and the Missoula County Commissioners.