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Montana has a unique, once-in-a-lifetime chance to conserve large swaths of its important forest lands.

This opportunity was made possible through the great work of Sen. Max Baucus, who helped secure lead funding for a land project that could convey around 300,000 acres of Plum Creek Timber Company timberland into conservation ownership. This is an opportunity for all of us who care about wildlife, our quality of life and preserving our economic timber base.

It's common knowledge that as economic forces change, Plum Creek is looking to sell some of its Montana forest lands. Many of its 1.2 million acres are ecologically sensitive and well worth keeping intact as working forests. Communities have a huge stake in the future ownership of these lands and want a say in how the lands are managed. At issue is the potential loss of timber lands and jobs, as well as lost access to world-class hunting, hiking, fishing, camping, snowmobiling and other recreation on some of the wildest, most scenic lands on the continent.

The Nature Conservancy and The Trust for Public Land have long track records of supporting local communities in the conservation of private timberlands in Montana. In the Blackfoot Valley, the Conservancy purchased 89,000 acres from Plum Creek and is now working closely with the local landowner group, the Blackfoot Challenge, to re-sell those lands to public and private buyers, including local landowners who agree to conservation easements. Over the last 10 years, The Trust for Public Land and its local partners have worked to conserve 25,000 acres of land in the Swan Valley and acquired a 142,000-acre conservation easement from Plum Creek in the Thompson-Fisher River Valleys.

Now we have an even greater opportunity to purchase a significant area of land that Montanans cherish. But, the costs and the risks involved in completing such a project are tremendous.

Public funding for these kinds of projects has slowed to a trickle at the same time that land prices in western Montana are skyrocketing. We and others have talked with Baucus about this issue on many occasions, and we take our hats off to him for successfully promoting forest conservation legislation within the federal farm bill. These funds could provide a significant chunk of the purchase price, along with other private and public funding sources. We could not seriously negotiate a purchase with Plum Creek without major public funding of this sort.

This funding is not about benefiting a private company but more about benefiting the public and future generations. This is a collaborative effort undertaken on behalf of our western Montana communities and all of those who love Montana. A project of this size can only happen when governments, the private sector and others work together to keep our forests, our livelihoods and our communities intact.

All of those who are interested in this exciting project will have ample time to provide input once we have an agreement with Plum Creek. At that point, we will invite communities, elected officials and various interest groups to weigh in on the future ownership and management of these lands. Because the public has long been concerned with public access, the best option for much of the lands will be federal or state ownership. For some lands, the best solution might be re-selling to private owners with conservation easements.

We have many details to work through n not the least of which are the specific lands and the acreage. We are also working on a sustainable forestry plan that will keep timber workers in the woods and in the mills.

The Nature Conservancy and The Trust for Public Land hope that we will soon come to agreement with Plum Creek on a historic acquisition of important timberlands in western Montana. Then, together with everyone who values our Montana traditions, we hope to make that agreement a reality in ways that best work for every Montanan.

Kat Imhoff is state director for The Nature Conservancy in Montana. Her office is in Helena. Eric Love is Northern Rockies director for The Trust for Public Land in Bozeman.

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