MT Easement Protects 53,000 Acres

Kalispell, Montana, 6/15/01 –Critical wildlife and fisheries habitat in the Thompson and Fisher river valleys of northwest Montana are one step closer to a secure future and protection under what will be the state’s largest conservation easement. The conservation project which will ultimately provide permanent public access and sustainable forest management to over 140,000 acres of timberlands is the result of a three-way deal between Plum Creek Timber Company, Inc., Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the Trust for Public Land.

The closing this week transfers development rights on 53,000 acres of Plum Creek lands in the scenic Thompson and Fisher River Valleys to Fish, Wildlife and Parks. The lands off limits to development include 24,000 acres in the Thompson River Valley, primarily around the Little Thompson River and lower Thompson River and 29,000 acres in the Fisher River drainage, around Wolf Creek and the lower Fisher River. These are added to the 13,320 acres placed under easement in December in the Fishtrap Creek area of the Thompson River drainage. With the completion of this second phase of the project, a total of 66,000 acres of Plum Creek lands in the two river valleys are kept from development. The third and final phase of the project, comprising 74,000 acres, is expected to be complete by the end of 2002.

Public access, habitat protection and maintaining a sustainable timber harvest are all benefits of the easement. The area 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 benefit as well including deer, moose, bighorn sheep, various furbearers, bald eagles, numerous bird species and a tremendous fishery that includes populations of bull trout, cutthroat trout and rainbow trout.

“This is an exciting opportunity to take care of the land and the economy. This project is in the best interest for the fish and wildlife while assuring public access and timber based jobs,” said Governor Judy Martz. “I applaud Plum Creek, the Trust for Public Land and Fish, Wildlife and Parks for developing such an innovative approach to protecting these special places.”

The purchased development rights in the river valleys were valued at nearly $12 million. Funding was provided from the Forest Legacy Program, Habitat Conservation Program, Wildlife Mitigation Trust, mitigation funds from Avista Corp., and a donation to the state by Plum Creek. The Forest Legacy Funds are provided through the U.S. Forest Service in a program designed to stem the conversion of timberlands to non-forested uses. The Habitat Conservation Funds are provided by Congress through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect critical habitat for threatened and endangered species on private lands – in this case the bull trout. MDFWP used its Wildlife Mitigation Trust funds to match the federal funds and protect species, habitats and recreation opportunities that were lost or damaged by the construction of Libby and Hungry Horse Dams. Avista Corporation contributed funding as part of their mitigation and relicensing of lower Clark Fork River dams and hydro facilities.

“I am very pleased that important sections of the Thompson and Fisher River Valleys are close to receiving permanent protection and becoming part of Montana’s largest conservation easement,” Sen. Max Baucus said. “This week, the Senate Finance Committee held a hearing on the importance of providing incentives to encourage land conservation, particularly incentives to encourage the greater use of conservation easements. As Chairman of the Committee, I want to continue to promote strong private and public partnerships like this one, which through the creative use of easements blends wildlife habitat protection, continued public access and responsible natural resource management. It’s a win-win for all sides.”

“I am happy to support this project because of its significant public support at the local level,” said Sen. Conrad Burns. “This project will preserve a unique part of Montana=s scenic beauty and wildlife habitat, and it will further assure jobs in the local timber economy over the long term. As the Ranking Member on the Senate Interior Appropriations Subcommittee which oversees funding decisions for the Forest Legacy Program, Montana’s priorities are well represented. I have supported this project and will work hard to complete it.”

The Thompson and Fisher River Valley lands have significant wildlife and fisheries values as well as a long tradition of public use and access to the adjacent national forest lands. Not surprisingly, they have been of interest to the local community, conservationists, and local county officials who view the loss of these lands from their traditional uses as harmful to wildlife and taxing to public services, already stretched by wide ranging residential developments. “We support the efforts of Plum Creek, TPL and FWP in protecting these lands for the public=s benefit. Development up in the Thompson River would put tremendous demands on the county for increased infrastructure and services. Their long-term management as timberlands and open public recreation is a high priority@ said Carol Brooker, Sanders County Commissioner.

“The Thompson and Fisher River Valleys Conservation Easement not only will benefit wildlife and fisheries but also guarantees public access for recreation.” said Jeff Hagener, director of FWP. “The Thompson-Fisher partnership is one of FWP’s Centennial projects, so it is our hope the results of this work are long remembered as one of this generation’s conservation gifts to Montana’s future.”

“It’s great that this agreement has come about and will assure traditional use. There will be an opportunity for the lands to be managed for timber harvest and still provide for public recreation as we have enjoyed for so long. I think this is a win-win solution for the land and for the people of Lincoln County” added Rita Windom, Lincoln County Commissioner.

“We are pleased to see the continued progress toward completing this landmark conservation easement, guaranteeing traditional uses of these lands forever. I look forward to completing the remainder of the easement next year” said Mike Covey, Vice President at Plum Creek.

Flathead, Sanders and Lincoln counties are among the state=s fastest growing areas and development pressures continue to change the rural character and quality of life. “This is a critical project in an area where private forested land is being converted for development – resulting in significant habitat loss, reduced timber base and oftentimes a hazardous wildfire exposure. TPL is pleased to be working with Plum Creek and Fish, Wildlife and 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.

“This project represents one of the most significant achievements for long-term habitat protection and for public use.” said Jim Cross of Flathead Wildlife Inc. “This is a tremendous legacy for us to leave future Montanans.”

The Thompson-Fisher project has broad support among the community, including over 93% of the comments received on the public hearings on the project. Many who have used the area for generations of hunting, fishing and recreating expressed great concern about elimination of public access and productive forest land, the threats of development, and loss of wildlife and fisheries habitat. “Through the years there have certainly been many contentious discussions over resource and land issues in northwest Montana. This project is one of the few where I have seen a diverse group of people line up and support something that is in all of our best interest,” said Jim Cross.

The Trust for Public Land, a national nonprofit organization, uses real-estate expertise and a cooperative approach in partnership with landowners, community groups and public agencies to acquire lands for public use. Since 1972, TPL has protected nearly two million acres with a value of more than $2 billion. Projects in Montana include protection of Lindbergh Lake, grizzly bear and bull trout habitat in the Swan Valley, the historic Garnet Ghost Town, waterfowl habitat at the Blasdel National Wildlife Refuge and Gallatin National Forest lands north of Yellowstone National Park. The Trust for Public Land has offices in Helena and Bozeman, Montana.

Plum Creek Timber Company, Inc. is a forest products company with timberlands and mills in the Northwest, the Southeast and Northeast United States. Plum Creek’s Rocky Mountain regional headquarters are in Columbia Falls, Montana.