Forever Montana: Protecting Big Sky Country
Across the timeless landscape of Montana, where mountains undulate with Douglas fir and ponderosa pine, and rivers course through verdant valleys, there is a new unease. It’s a feeling among residents that the Big Sky Country they know and love might not be as immutable as they once believed.
Since the pandemic, real estate prices have soared, the result of people and, increasingly, developers streaming into the state to buy land for second homes. A recent study by the California Policy Lab estimated that the movement of San Francisco residents to Montana alone had jumped 140 percent in 2020 and 2021, compared to the previous two years.
The reasons are obvious: Montana’s scenic beauty, quite simply, takes your breath away. And during a pandemic in which the only safe place to be was outdoors, the state offered plenty of elbow room. Though it is the fourth largest state in terms of land area, it ranks 43rd in population.
At the same time, even before the pandemic began, timber companies had started selling off hundreds of thousands of acres of working forest. Some of that land went to other timber companies, but other acreage wound up in the hands of housing developers.
Never before has so much land changed hands so quickly or the risks to unbroken wilderness been so great. That is why Trust for Public Land has pledged to protect 800,000 acres in Montana. We’ve already secured public access to 600,000 acres; now, we’ve set an ambitious goal to conserve an additional 200,000 acres over the next three years.
A Galvanizing Moment
“During the pandemic, people have been gobbling up land as quickly as they can,” says Chris Deming, TPL’s Northern Rockies land protection director. “And it’s created tremendous pressure on lands out here. Everyone wants a piece of the Northern Rockies. It has also created this apex moment where we have one opportunity to protect as much of that land base to ensure it’s maintained as working forest with permanent public access.”
Perhaps the biggest shock came right before the holidays in 2019. Catherine Schmidt, a project manager in TPL’s Bozeman office, said she was on the East Coast when her phone started to blow up. “I was getting texts and emails from partners about the news that Weyerhaeuser was selling 630,000 of its acres,” she recalls, referring to the timber giant. “People were really nervous.”
That transaction galvanized Trust for Public Land, whose conservation ramped up even before the launch of the Forever Montana campaign. The organization has partnered with timber companies such as Stimson Lumber and Southern Pines Plantations (the company that bought the Weyerhaeuser lands), securing deals called conservation easements. That’s when an organization like TPL buys development rights from a company, protecting both open space and public access in perpetuity. In the past six years, Trust for Public Land has protected more than 100,000 acres of forest in this way.
Deming points out other benefits of forest protection: safeguarding wildlife corridors, retaining good-paying jobs in timbering and tourism, sequestering carbon, and creating healthful recreation opportunities.
Keeping Montana, Montana
For the people who call Montana home, whether longtime residents or recent arrivals, preserving land for public use is essential. For decades, many of the timber companies operating in the state had allowed the public to use their land for hiking, hunting, fishing, and other activities. But these informal arrangements are threatened by the real estate boom.
Lisa Brown, a high school math teacher, relishes the opportunity to hike, hunt, forage, and fish near her home in western Montana, about an hour and a half southwest of Kalispell. But she’s noticed a change in accessibility in recent years.
“Some of the timberland that’s been purchased—it’s shut off now,” explains Brown, 57, who introduced her grandchildren to foraging for berries and morels. “Those areas where we used to be able to go and camp, it’s all gated. More than half of the shoreline of one of our favorite lakes is no longer accessible.”
Deming credits timber companies for their willingness to sign contracts that stave off development. What he hears from partners like Stimson is that the ringing phones, with constant purchase offers, are more of a distraction than anything else. TPL has protected some 122,000 acres through conservation easements with Stimson in the past 10 years. “It’s about the surety of their core business and that business is growing trees,” Deming says.
A number of funding programs through the U. S. Forest Service have bolstered conservation efforts, notably the Forest Legacy Program. Since its creation in 1990, the program has conserved over 2.8 million acres of forest across the country. But more resources are needed.
“This team has an incredible opportunity to make a difference,” says Melissa Dulin, TPL’s Northern Rockies director of philanthropy. “Even with new government funding sources available, we need more private philanthropy to make sure we fulfill the vision and beyond.”
Making sure the Northern Rocky Mountains remain publicly accessible is about more than logistics. For recreationists like Mitch Doherty, a mountain biker, hiker, and rafter, protection of the state’s sweeping landscapes is important practically—in terms of access—but also emotionally. He describes the difference between gazing at, say, a ridge sprinkled with houses versus one that looks as it has for thousands of years.
“Some of the lands that Trust for Public Land is working to protect around Missoula face the Clark Fork River,” he says. “When you float down the river, you look up at these lands and you don’t see reflections off windows or porch lights. You don’t hear dogs barking. It’s pristine.”
Preservation with Benefits
For the men and women who make a living from the forests, conservation means protected access, but also prospects for continued employment. A combination of factors, including new technologies and innovation, have put downward pressure on logging and related forestry jobs. Since its peak in the late 1980s, forestry employment in Montana has dropped nearly 39 percent—a loss of 4,600 jobs—along with compensation and benefits.
“The timber industry has shrunk dramatically and mills have shut down,” notes Dick Dolan, TPL’s Northern Rockies director. “There is now real angst about whether there will be enough forestland to sustain any mills at all. Conservation will keep this part of a diversified economy viable in the long run.”
Dolan emphasized that agreements struck with timber companies include guidelines for sustainable forestry practices “that remain in place forever.” Timber companies must manage forests in a way that meets sustainability standards for protecting resources such as wood and clean water. And that protection extends to other aspects of the forest, from wildlife habitats and scenic landscapes to plants and soils.
As if that wasn’t positive enough, preventing the destruction of forests has other major benefits. Trees, of course, absorb and store carbon dioxide. And when forests are preserved in and around cities, the proximity to people’s houses translates to less driving to destinations.
Trust for Public Land’s Montana Great Outdoors Project is one such initiative. With it, TPL has the opportunity to help stitch together 317,000 acres of land while protecting important working timberland from Glacier National Park through the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness to the Selkirk and Coeur d’Alene mountains in the Idaho panhandle.
All of that means more forest for more people—to work in, to play in, or both. Which is ultimately the goal: protecting Montana’s vast wilderness for everyone’s benefit, now and for generations to come.
Lisa W. Foderaro is a senior writer and researcher for Trust for Public Land. Previously, she was a reporter for the New York Times, where she covered parks and the environment.
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