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WHITEFISH — Nearly 22 square miles of important fish and wildlife habitat nine miles northwest of Whitefish could soon find its way into public hands.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and The Trust for Public Land is working to conserve 13,398 acres of property, currently owned by Weyerhaeuser, through a complicated land deal that involves funding from a variety of sources.

“It’s one of the most complicated projects that I’ve worked on,” said Kris Tempel, resource specialist with FWP’s Habitat Conservation Program. “It’s also a very exciting project that’s taken several years to put together. The finish line is coming.”

The lands are part of the properties purchased by Weyerhaeuser in 2016 from Plum Creek Timber.

The company indicated it planned to sell the property and gave the Trust for Public Lands the first option to buy the lands.

The land could have easily become another high-end subdivision or golf course, Tempel said.

But it’s also a corridor in the spring for grizzly bears and habitat for elk, moose, mule deer, wolves black bear and grouse.

“That’s why Fish, Wildlife and Parks became involved,” Tempel said.

The area is also important for protection of the watershed and will provide continued sustainable commercial timber harvesting opportunities into the future.

The proposal calls for The Trust for Public Lands to acquire the entire project area from Weyerhaeuser by the end of September.

FWP proposes to purchase a conservation easement on 16 sections, or 10,218 acres. Once the Lazy Creek Conservation Easement is in place, the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation would purchase the underlying fee ownership from the Trust.

The funding would come from a variety of federal and state sources, including the U.S. Forest Service Forest Legacy Program, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Habitat Conservation Plan Land Acquisition Grant, hunter license dollars through FWP’s Habitat Montana Program and private funds from The Trust for Public Lands.

So far, the two entities have secured $9 million in federal funding and $1 million in state monies to pay for the first phase that encompasses 7,018 acres. The anticipated closing date on the first phase would be the end of 2017.

Funding has been requested for the second phase.

Habitat Funding has committed $1 million for each of the two Lazy Creek Conservation easement phases.

The Trust for Public Lands will pay the remaining costs on that portion of the project area.

The Bonneville Power Administration will pay $11.5 million for the five other sections of land, or about 3,180 acres, in the Swift Creek drainage. BPA would retain a conservation easement on the land to conserve important native fish habitat.

The BPA’s portion of the proposed project will serve as partial mitigation for fishery losses from the construction of Hungry Horse Dam.

Non-motorized public access to the lands would be allowed on all lands in the project area, Tempel said. The public would also be allowed to drive on a road that goes through the property.

The DNRC still has to complete its own process to acquire the lands. The environmental assessment under consideration at this point is focused only on the FWP’s proposed conservation easement.

Eventually, either the DNRC or FWP would own the land.

FWP is currently seeking comment from the public on its draft environmental assessment for the Whitefish Lake Watershed Project. Comments will be accepted through July 12. A public hearing on the proposal is set for Wednesday, June 21, at 6:30 p.m. at the Grouse Mountain Lodge in Whitefish.

Copies of the EA are available at FWP’s Kalispell office, the Montana State Library and FWP headquarters in Helena or on the department’s website or at local public libraries.

Comments can be submitted to Nancy Ivy, Fish, Wildlife & Parks, 490 N. Meridian Road, Kalispell, MT 59901; 406-751-4579; nivy@mt.gov.

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