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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.

WHITEFISH — Montana’s largest state forest grew by more than 7,000 acres recently thanks to a public-private partnership dedicated to sustainable forest management, public access and habitat conservation.

If things go according to plan, the Stillwater State Forest north of Whitefish will grow by nearly that amount again in the next year as former Weyerhaeuser timber lands come into public ownership.

In a deal that began with talks a decade ago, the Trust for Public Lands officials recently conveyed the title of 7,108 acres of forestland east of U.S. Highway 93 near Olney over to the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.

Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks holds a conservation easement on the property that will permanently restrict commercial and residential development, protect fish and wildlife habitat, ensure sustainable forest management and secure public access for recreation.

Spanning nearly 11 square miles, the land will be added to the 90,000-acre Stillwater State Forest.

The agreement represented the completion of the first phase of the Whitefish Lake Watershed Project that encompasses a 13,398-acre block of forestland surrounded on three sides by the state forest. The first phase focused on the Lazy Creek portion of the property.

The Trust for Public Lands acquired the property at the end of September and held it while a complicated funding package could be put together from state, federal and private sources. Those included the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, the Montana Fish and Wildlife Conservation Trust, the department’s Habitat Montana program and private funding from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s through Walmart’s Acres for America Program, the Whitefish Community Foundation and several individuals.

DNRC tapped into the state’s land banking funds that are generated from the sale of isolated, low-performing tracts of state land.

State Trust Lands division administrator Shawn Thomas said the project returns lands that were once in public ownership back to the state.

“These lands, which include some of the most productive timberland in the state, were originally granted to Montana’s trust beneficiaries by Congress in the late 1800s and were subsequently sold to private interests in the early 1900s,” Thomas said. “This acquisition is truly a treasure returned to the state trust and the public who will enjoy it.”

Located in one of the fastest growing areas of the state, the project will protect forestry jobs and clean water for the community of Whitefish while preserving habitat used by grizzly bears, Canada lynx and westslope cutthroat.

“Completion of this conservation easement project has taken the hard work and dedication of many partners, and FWP is thrilled to have been a part of conserving this critical piece of fish and wildlife habitat in perpetuity while also ensuring sustainable forest management and public access into the future,” said FWP resource specialist Kris Tempel.

The project was supported by Montana U.S. Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines.

“This project increases public access to public lands, allows for responsible timber harvest, protects wildlife, helps bolster the local economy, and provides clean water to folks across northwest Montana,” said Tester, a Democrat. “It’s a win-win-win-win-win. That’s why I’m fighting to permanently reauthorize and fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund because it makes projects like this possible.”

“It’s good to see federal, state, and private partners come together to protect public access and timber management,” Daines, a Republican, said.

The Trust for Public Land acquired the former Plum Creek property from Weyerhaeuser last September, said the Trust’s Kristin Kovalik.

In that acquisition, the Trust purchased an additional 3,200 acres from Weyerhaeuser in the same area that it plans to turn over to the state after a second phase funding package is completed this year, she said.

A third phase includes an additional 3,000 acres that currently are owned by the company. The funding for those lands is expected to come from Bonneville Power Administration’s fisheries mitigation program.

The goal is to have that completed as well this year, Kovalik said. Lands acquired in the second and third phase will be managed identically as those lands recently added to the Stillwater State Forest.

Weyerhaeuser plans to retain ownership of about 1,900 acres in the area, which Kovalik said may eventually be sold for residential development.

“The end goal has always been to get as much of this land as possible back into Stillwater State Forest ownership,” Kovalik said. “We just kept reworking it until we figured out a game plan to be able to find a way to pay for most of the land. Being able to conserve and open up over 13,000 acres is a good win.”

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Northwest Montana Reporter

Northwest Montana reporter at the Missoulian