Largest MT Conservation Easement Completed

MISSOULA, MONTANA 9/30/03 – The Trust for Public Land today announced the completion of the final $6.5 million phase of a seven-year, cooperative, multi-party effort, the largest conservation easement in Montana’s history. This project protects over 142,000 acres in the Thompson and Fisher River Valleys in the northwest part of the state. These lands have been the focus of a determined effort to protect wildlife and fisheries habitat, provide for traditional outdoor recreation activities, prevent incompatible subdivision and development, and provide for timber management and production.

Plum Creek worked with the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) and the Trust for Public Land (TPL) to secure a conservation easement on its holdings in these remote and scenic valleys.

Sanders County Commissioner Carol Brooker emphasized the benefits to local governments: “By maintaining these lands in forest production we can prevent the encroachment of residences into the forests and avoid the obligations of providing services to isolated rural-recreational development. This summer’s fire season is a persuasive reminder that placing homes in the forest environment creates unnecessary threats to public safety and private property, and places an extreme burden on the taxpayers.”

The Thompson and Fisher River Valley is a popular hunting and fishing destination for many Montanans and provides habitat and winter range for the largest elk herd in northwest Montana. Many of the area’s other species will also benefit including deer, moose, bighorn sheep, grizzly and black bears, various furbearers, bald eagles, numerous bird species and a tremendous fishery that includes populations of westslope cutthroat trout, redband trout, and bull trout.

Local sporting groups were important supporters from the early stages of project development. “The conservation easement in the Thompson and Fisher River Valleys will greatly benefit wildlife and fisheries through habitat protection, but it also guarantees public access for recreation. These are key issues that are important to the sports men and women of Montana,” stated Jim Cross of Flathead Wildlife, Inc. “Our members are thankful to FWP and especially Senator Burns for working so hard to help fund this important project.”

The total value of the purchased development rights in both river valleys is over $34 million. An array of funding sources was needed to complete a conservation project of this scale and value. The majority of funding – about $16 million – was obtained through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Legacy Program over a four-year period. Through the Legacy program, states receive grants to protect forestlands at risk of conversion to non-forest uses. An additional $9 million of funding was provided through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s Service’s Habitat Conservation Plan Land Acquisition grant program over a three-year period.

For the past five years, this effort was spearheaded at the federal level by Senator Conrad Burns, Chairman of the Senate Interior Appropriations Subcommittee, who secured $25 million in five fiscal years of funding to support this broad-based partnership effort.

“This project is an investment in the future of northwest Montana and its successful completion is a testament to how important the area is to local citizens, sportsmen, and the local timber economy,” said Senator Conrad Burns (R-Mont.). “The guarantee that this acreage will remain open to public access while also staying in active timber production is an excellent goal.

Governors Racicot and Martz recognized this, and I am glad to have been part of the effort.” Governor Martz expressed her satisfaction with the completion of this conservation easement project. “I have supported this effort throughout my tenure because of its cooperative approach and local support. The easement provides a structure for protection of forestlands important to Montanans working and recreating in the woods, while maintaining the land in private ownership.”

FWP contributed over $6 million toward the effort from mitigation funds for fish and wildlife, a critical source of matching funds that were required to complete the deal. “This project has had the enthusiastic and sustained support of hunters and anglers and we are pleased to see its completion,” said Dan Vincent, Regional Supervisor for FWP. “Hunting, fishing, camping and other outdoor recreation activities are important to the people of northwest Montana, and we appreciate the participation of all the parties involved throughout this seven-year process.”

Plum Creek also made a $1.6 million donation toward the project. Tom Ray, General Manager for Plum Creek, expressed his company’s enthusiasm for the effort: “Our partnership with the Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks and the Trust for Public Land has been very productive. We are proud to be part of this large-scale approach to forestland protection. We recognize that multiple conservation values can be maintained alongside our long-term management objectives for the production of wood fiber. We look forward to investigating other opportunities for collaborative approaches to maintain habitat protection and public recreation opportunities on Plum Creek forestlands.”

The Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) contributed $1.5 million toward fisheries habitat protection in the Fisher River drainage. “This agreement sets a standard for BPA’s efforts to provide mitigation for fish and wildlife habitats affected by construction of federal hydroelectric facilities,” said Steve Wright, BPA administrator. “It clearly defines BPA’s responsibilities and credits the contribution of these projects in meeting those obligations.”

“Flathead, Sanders and Lincoln counties, where the project is located, are among the state’s fastest growing areas where the loss of open space has changed the rural character, diminished access to recreational lands and impacted quality of life. TPL thanks Senator Burns for his leadership in securing the necessary federal funding to complete this project. This has been a tremendous effort and TPL is pleased to be partners with Plum Creek and Fish, Wildlife & Parks to make this conservation legacy a reality. Future generations will be thankful for the foresight and efforts of local citizens and political leaders to protect these lands,” added David Genter of the Trust for Public Land.

The Trust for Public Land, a national nonprofit organization, conserves land for people to enjoy as parks, gardens, and other natural places, ensuring livable communities for generations to come. Since 1972, TPL has protected more than 1.5 million acres nationwide with a value of more than $2 billion. TPL depends on the support of individuals, foundations and businesses to achieve our land for people mission. TPL projects in Montana include protection of Garnet Ghost Town, Lindbergh Lake, the Swan River Valley, Thompson and Fisher River Valleys, waterfowl habitat at the Blasdel National Wildlife Refuge and National Forest lands northwest of Yellowstone National Park.

Plum Creek is one of the largest land and timber owners in the nation, with over eight million acres of timberlands in major timber producing regions of the United States and 10 wood products manufacturing facilities in the Northwest.

Video clips available from Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks. Contact John Frahley at 406-752-5501.