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Whitefish Mountain Resort

A skier makes his way down a run at Whitefish Mountain Resort. Whitefish Lake is seen in the background.

WHITEFISH – It’s not the final hurdle, but a five-year effort to protect Whitefish’s drinking water cleared an important one Monday in Helena, when the state Land Board approved the purchase of a conservation easement on Haskill Basin.

The vote was unanimous, according to Darlene Edge, Lands Program manager for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

The easement will also maintain public access to the 3,020 acres north of Whitefish and allow the property’s owner, F.H. Stoltze Land and Lumber Co., to keep the land in commercial timber production.

The Whitefish City Council must still approve the deal, which it will consider on Jan. 19, and a final appraisal of a conservation easement will be completed by the end of December that federal and state agencies involved will have to review.

“We hope to close in February,” Whitefish city manager Chuck Stearns said, “but we’ll still have to meet the requirements of two federal agencies, Fish, Wildlife and Parks, and the city. The appraisal is a big step.”

Final approval by all involved would formalize a century-old “handshake” agreement between the city and Stoltze. Officials said a conservation easement became necessary as the financial pressures for Stoltze to convert the land to other uses – identified as luxury home development – increased.

The company knocked almost $4 million off the preliminary $20.6 million appraised value of a conservation easement on the land.

The remaining $16.7 million would come from three sources.

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Whitefish voters overwhelmingly approved a 1 percent increase in their local resort tax that will raise $7.7 million of the purchase price. The proposal to raise taxes passed with 84 percent of the vote in April.

The U.S. Forest Service will contribute another $7 million through its Forest Legacy Program, and $2 million will come from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The easement will permanently protect the watershed from development and guarantee the city access to its intakes and pipes on two creeks in the Haskill Basin, even if Stoltze ever sells the property.

Whitefish gets most of its water supply from the two creeks. Development on nearby Whitefish Mountain Resort forced the city to abandon a third creek that helped supply its drinking water in the 1970s.

An environmental assessment called the 3,000-plus acres a “prime candidate” for future luxury home development, what with its “stunning views” of Whitefish Lake, the city of Whitefish, the Mission Mountains, Flathead Lake and the Flathead Valley.

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The conservation easement also ensures the hunters, anglers, hikers and bikers Stoltze has allowed to recreate on the land will be able to do so in perpetuity, no matter who might own the acreage in the future.

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A similar but separate conservation easement proposal on more than 7,000 nearby acres owned by Stoltze has not advanced as far as the Haskill Basin easement yet.

That one is for the Trumble Creek area northwest of Columbia Falls. The preliminary appraised value for a conservation easement on that land is $12.7 million. Stoltze has agreed to knock more than $3 million off that price.

Because of the properties’ proximity and similarities, both were lumped together in the environmental assessment and called the South Whitefish Range Conservation Project.

The Haskill Basin easement has been on a faster track, though. FWP has recommended its commission also approve the Trumble Creek easement once the easement and associated management plans are finalized, and other due diligence is completed.

FWP Commission approval is required before the state Land Board takes it up.

The Land Board is made up of Gov. Steve Bullock, Attorney General Tim Fox, Secretary of State Linda McCulloch, Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau and Monica Lindeen, the commissioner of securities and insurance. Edge said all were present at Monday’s meeting when the Haskill Bain proposal passed unanimously.

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