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Trees near Whitefish

The sun sets on a grove of pine and fir trees above Whitefish in this file photo. The Stillwater State Forest north of Whitefish added more than 7,000 acres recently thanks to a public-private partnership dedicated to sustainable forest management, public access and habitat conservation.

Stillwater State Forest near Whitefish is set to gain more than 13,000 acres as a long-gestating conservation project nears completion.

The woodlands northwest of Whitefish Lake have a lower profile than Glacier National Park's nearby peaks. But they shelter some of Montana’s most iconic species — grizzly bears, lynx, whitetail deer, trout — and drain into one of the region’s most popular lakes.

The Stillwater State Forest covers about 90,000 acres of this habitat, and the Whitefish Lake Watershed Project has spent the last year working to enlarge it by 13,398 acres. It reached its last major step Monday, when the state Board of Land Commissioners approved the transfer of 3,180 privately owned acres to the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.

Heidi Van Everen is executive director of Whitefish Legacy Partners. While her conservation group wasn’t directly involved in this transaction, she sees it as a win for the region.

“It’s our vistas, it’s what we look at, so to protect our landscapes so we can keep our viewsheds … just kind of creates a great community,” she said.

A 13,398-acre tract at Stillwater’s southern end has long been in private hands, most recently those of Seattle-based timber firm Weyerhaeuser. The Watershed Project, approved in July 2017, aimed to return it to Stillwater.

That goal has required multiple federal, state and private groups to assemble a jigsaw puzzle of land transfers and conservation easements.

At the outset, the San Francisco-based Trust for Public Land bought about 10,000 acres of the property from Weyerhaeuser and held it for the state. Then, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks secured $22 million in federal, state and private funds for conservation easements, restrictions on land use that would remain with the property and forever protect it from development.

These came in two phases. The first, in February, covered 7,000 acres of the area at a cost of $15.5 million. Its approval cleared the way for the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation to buy the property from the Trust.

The second covers an adjacent 3,000 acres to the south, and had a $6.5 million price tag, funded by the Land and Water Conservation Fund through the U.S. Forest Service’s Forest Legacy Project and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the state’s Habitat Montana program.

All the funding for those easements was in place by May, and Michelle Anderson, trust lands program manager with the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation’s Northwest Lands Office, said that they expect to close on the transfer next month.

That leaves a third, 3,180-acre tract to the southeast surrounding the Swift Creek drainage. To secure that portion, the Watershed Project got help from the Bonneville Power Administration, which retails the power from the Northwest’s hydroelectric dams.

Those dams take a toll on their surrounding ecosystems, and Bonneville has an obligation to mitigate it, explained public information specialist John Tyler. One of its methods is acquiring nearby habitat.

“Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks has worked with us for several years to find these types of purchases” explained Cecilia Brown, a fish biologist with Bonneville. In March 2016, she remembered, the agency approached Bonneville “saying that this large parcel was available for sale,” and that it would “be a good property for us to fund with our mitigation dollars.”

The agency is obligated to offset the loss of roughly 78 miles of fish habitat destroyed by Hungry Horse Dam, she explained. Brown estimates that this transaction will preserve about 8 miles of that. “This is definitely on the large end of the scale” of mitigation projects, Tyler added.

Now that the state’s Board of Land Commissioners has approved the transfer, an interlocking set of transactions will deliver the property to Montanans. The Trust for Public Land will exercise an option to buy the property from Weyerhaeuser using Bonneville funding, then donate it to the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation for addition to the Stillwater State Forest. This arrangement will bypass the lengthy approval process that federal agencies like Bonneville must undergo for land purchases, Tyler explained.

Tyler said Bonneville would pay the Trust fair market value. The property has been appraised at nearly $10.7 million. Tyler said that the money will come from ratepayers, not tax dollars, and stressed that Bonneville is obligated to complete environmental mitigation projects.

A conservation easement to be held by Bonneville will restrict future development and keep the area forested. Brown emphasized that access will remain the same.

“We’ve got all the documents lined up, we’re ready to close.” Tyler said. “It’s our anticipation by the end of next week that this transaction will be successfully completed.”

That will make it the latest of several public-private arrangements to conserve the forests, lakes and streams surrounding Whitefish. The details may be fiendishly complex, but the benefits are real, explained Whitefish Legacy Partners’ Van Everen.

“That recreation, that commitment to recreational development that we’ve made in partnership with the city has turned into this economic driver,” she explained, pointing to a recent Headwaters Economics study that attributed $6.4 million in consumer spending, and 68 jobs, to her group’s flagship project, the Whitefish Trail.

About 3 miles separate that trail system from Stillwater’s newest section, and Van Everen said there are no current plans to link them. But even so, she sees it as the latest success for the area’s conservation efforts.

“It’s a huge milestone," she said, that the Department, the Trust, and Bonneville "can come together and are in agreement,” on the project.

Separately, the Board also approved the transfer of about 9 square miles of Bureau of Land Management grazing land to Custer, Richland and Prairie counties as compensation for land that should have been transferred to Montana upon statehood in 1889.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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