Whitefish secured protection to its drinking water and its residents’ favorite outdoor playground this week when the state Fish and Wildlife Commission approved buying a conservation easement on Haskill Basin.
“This has been five years in the making,” Whitefish Mayor John Muhlfeld told the commissioners Thursday. “For over 100 years, Stoltze (Land and Lumber Co.) allowed the city to operate its water supply on little more than a handshake. Our secondary source is in Whitefish Lake, and we must pump, treat and pay a higher cost for that water. If we’d lost this, the cost would be $500,000 per year in increased utility fees.”
The commissioners agreed to spending up to the appraised value of $20.6 million for the 3,020-acre conservation easement. Of that, $7 million comes from the U.S. Forest Service’s Forest Legacy Program and $2 million comes from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The city of Whitefish contributed $7.7 million, raised through a 1 percent increase in local resort taxes that received a 84 percent voter approval in the recent election. The remaining $3.9 million was donated through a price reduction by Stoltze.
The proposal’s environmental assessment received 56 public comments with 29 in support, 27 asking questions and none stating opposition. Stoltze retains rights to harvest timber from the land, which it was considering selling for new housing projects. The deal awaits final approval from the state Land Board.
It was the top-scoring project in the nation for Forest Legacy competitive grant funding last year. That money was one of the last allocations from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, which Congress allowed to expire this year. Montana’s congressional delegation has been trying to revive it in the final days of this year’s session.
“This is exactly why people in Montana are so flabbergasted why the Land and Water Conservation Fund was not funded,” Commission Chairman Dan Vermillion said. “Here’s a project where we’re supporting timber harvest, water for the community and recreation. We had cooperation between the city, a timber company and conservationists – everybody pulling in the same direction. These are the things that make it fun to be on the commission.”