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TNC adds big Blackfoot acreage to public
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TNC adds big Blackfoot acreage to public

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A 12,000-acre swath of forest between Bonner and Seeley Lake has moved into public ownership through a deal with the Nature Conservancy and the U.S. Forest Service.

The transfer includes a hunk of Wisherd Ridge as it extends into the Gold Creek basin on the eastern edge of the Rattlesnake National Recreation Area. It also consolidates much of the “checkerboard” property lines dating back to the time when Plum Creek Timber Co. owned every other square mile of the forest west of Placid Lake.

“All of this ground has seen some significant logging,” said TNC Western Montana Land Protection Director Chris Bryant. “But it’s set up to be in good shape. And there are a lot of little refugia of past climates, where there are a lot of larch and large groves of Pacific yew, cedar stands, and even some mountain hemlock which is unusual for this part of Montana. Wisherd Ridge holds a lot of water in wintertime, which makes it a productive site from a forest perspective.”

This January sale of 12,038 acres combines with a 2019 package that brought the TNC-Forest Service transfer to more than 28,000 acres to the Lolo National Forest. The project dates back almost 20 years, when Plum Creek was winding down its logging operations in western Montana and TNC helped broker deals to put the land in public ownership. The land trust organization still has about 70,000 acres between Missoula and Seeley Lake to manage and eventually transfer, along with another roughly 20,000 acres of former timberland west of Missoula.

“This is all the headwaters of the Blackfoot and Clearwater rivers,” said Quinn Carver, Seeley Lake District Ranger. “This is all the ‘River Runs Through It’ legacy lands.”

Carver referred to the Norman Maclean novella celebrating fly-fishing and family on the “Big Blackfoot” River and Missoula, which has fueled international interest in the region. However, the area also endured a century of intensive logging, mining and other development that resulted in unmaintained roads, sediment-filled streams, degraded wildlife habitat and other management challenges.  

“Any time you can get rid of checkerboard and get it in contiguous management, it makes things easier,” Carver said. “TNC has done a ton of work on this road system already. A lot of those roads were put in a long time ago and have undersized culverts.”

The mountains harbor significant populations of deer and elk, threatened bull trout and grizzly bears. They are also popular with snowmobilers and backcountry skiers, anglers, backpackers, berry-pickers and mountain bikers. The Rattlesnake and Mission Mountain wilderness areas and the Flathead Indian Reservation’s South Jocko Primitive Area border this forest.

“This is the culmination of a great partnership with TNC and other partners in that particular landscape,” said Lolo District Ranger Jen Hensiek, whose jurisdiction abuts Carver’s. “I know our kids and kids’ kids are going to be able to enjoy that landscape. It allows more wildlife continuity, more recreation access into those areas, and into the (Rattlesnake) national recreation area. And I know it comes with some work.”

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