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Land trust, Plum Creek, forest agree to deal

Rich in wildlife and scenery, almost 1,700 acres in the upper Swan Valley will be forever protected from development under a three-way,

$8.7 million agreement announced Tuesday.

Brokered by the Trust for Public Land, the deal put into public ownership - and Flathead National Forest management - timberland along Van Lake and the Swan River previously owned by Plum Creek Timber Co.

The purchase consolidates public ownership and access to the lake, which adjoins both the Flathead forest and the Swan River State Forest. Funding came from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, which provides money for the protection of critical open space throughout the nation.

"The community really wanted to secure public access to Van Lake," said David Genter, the Trust for Public Land's director in the Northern Rockies. "This piece of property was a very high priority."

Had Plum Creek decided to sell Van Lake to private individuals, as it has other such places in western Montana, public access could have been lost.

"What happens with these high-use public areas affects the entire Swan Valley community," said Anne Dahl of the Swan Ecosystem Center. "If the valley is going to remain rural and retain the values that make it special, it's essential we put some of these lands into public ownership."

The Van Lake area also is considered an essential link for grizzly bears and other wildlife that move between the Mission Mountains and Bob Marshall Wilderness. The area has one of the healthiest populations of bull trout in Montana, and is home to most of the known populations of water howellia, a rare aquatic plant.

Both water howellia and bull trout are protected under the Endangered Species Act.

Genter gave credit for the purchase to U.S. Sens. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., and Max Baucus, D-Mont. Burns is chairman of the Senate's Interior Appropriations Subcommittee.

Said Burns: "The Swan Valley conservation efforts will provide tremendous public benefits for generations to come. There is strong community and business support for this project. Not only have we conserved a valuable piece of Montana, but we did it in support of the local economy."

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At the U.S. Forest Service's regional office in Missoula, deputy regional forester Kathy McAllister said the agreement will resolve some of the problems created by the Swan Valley's checkerboard pattern of land ownership.

In many areas, land

sections alternate between Plum Creek and Forest Service ownership, complicating management and access.

The purchase is "a rare opportunity to enhance public recreation and secure critical habitat for some of Montana's priority fish and wildlife," McAllister said. "The Swan Valley is a high priority management area for the Forest Service."

At Plum Creek, general manager Tom Ray said the agreement reflects his company's "commitment to a balanced program of timberlands, conservation and real estate sales. We appreciate the determined efforts of the community and congressional delegation to make this acquisition possible."

Plum Creek is the largest private landowner of grizzly bear habitat in the lower 48 states. The Van Lake area was among the high-priority corridors identified for protection under the 1995 Swan Valley Grizzly Bear Conservation agreement signed by Plum Creek and the state and federal governments.

Reporter Sherry Devlin can be reached at 523-5268 or at sdevlin@missoulian.com

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