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About 5,500 acres of former timberland above the Blackfoot River have moved into public ownership through a deal between The Nature Conservancy and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

“We wanted to take a step back and understand how folks who live and work in that place use it,” TNC land protection director Chris Bryant said of the Belmont Creek Tract. “Adding to the Blackfoot recreation corridor made the most sense.”

The property sits just north of the Belmont Creek Fishing Access Site on the Blackfoot River alongside river frontage land already owned by BLM.

The purchase nearly doubles the BLM’s holdings in the isolated stretch of river between Johnsrud Park and Lubrecht Experimental Forest, north of Potomac. It brings to 32,589 acres of former industrial timber land that TNC has transferred to BLM in the Blackfoot watershed since 1997.

TNC got the property from Plum Creek Timber Co. as part of a 117,000-acre sale of lands in the Gold Creek and Belmont Creek drainages northeast of Missoula. Known as the Clearwater-Blackfoot Project, the property links the Rattlesnake Wilderness north of Missoula, the South Fork Jocko Tribal Primative Area of the Flathead Indian Reservation, and the federal and tribal Mission Mountains Wilderness Areas and Montana’s Marshall Creek Wildlife Management Area near Seeley Lake.

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“I’ve been a longtime proponent of this transaction,” said Potomac-area rancher and logger Denny Iverson. “It adds to that great river corridor and preserves grazing leases that are really important to the community. It ensures that grass will be available to those ranchers well into the future.”

Plum Creek has sold TNC about a half-million acres of its holdings in western Montana. TNC has transferred 336,894 acres to public ownership, while another 20,102 acres has been sold to private owners with conservation easements that allow for traditional uses, protect wildlife habitat and keep the region’s rural character.

Bryant said while most of the 5,500 acres have been extensively logged, the area has recovered enough to justify some careful thinning and logging to reduce wildfire risk and encourage growth of the remaining big trees. The organization has also done extensive weed-control to beat back invasive plants along the road network.

“What we learned in two years we owned the ground is that Belmont Creek is rich ecologically,” Bryant said. “It’s got lots of carnivores, and there are lots of beaver in Belmont Creek.”

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