Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks wants to finalize two conservation easements that would preserve open land near Whitefish and complete a legacy purchase aided by the now-dead Land and Water Conservation Fund.
Last week, FWP published a draft environmental study that is critical for securing easements on more than 10,000 acres in the southern Whitefish Mountains.
If FWP ultimately decides to take over management of the easements, it not only saves land in the Haskill and Trumbull basins from being subdivided, but it also helps a Montana lumber company to stay solvent.
F.H. Stoltze Land & Lumber Co. allows people to recreate on the two properties it has owned for decades. The Haskill Basin property is 3,020 acres north of Whitefish and the Trumbull Creek property is 7,150 acres northwest of Columbia Falls.
Public access to these areas can continue because Stoltze will retain ownership and continue to harvest timber under the easements worked out by The Trust for Public Land. In the long run, it works out better for Stoltze than selling the land to developers.
“A week doesn’t go by that a person or developer doesn’t inquire about buying land from us, and I just say, ‘No, thanks, that’s not the business we’re in,’” said Stoltze general manager Chuck Roady. “(The Haskill Basin property) is about 8 percent of our land in the Flathead area. Now because of the provisions in the conservation easement, we can grow our trees and harvest our trees in perpetuity, just as the recreation and public access is in perpetuity.”
If FWP decides to take no action, it could upset years of collaboration and maybe result in Stoltze having to sell to private owners, continuing the suburban expansion that threatens to shut the public out of many parts of western Montana.
In a letter, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers co-chair Greg Munther said the Trumbull Creek project would ensure "that the property is kept in productive forest management in a manner that permanently protects its extraordinary wildlife, wetlands and public access. A successful purchase of a conservation easement would benefit hunters and anglers for generations to come."
Money from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund enabled much of the work that created the easements so FWP wouldn’t have to pay anything for the easements.
“Stoltze hasn’t received any money yet. Almost all the funding is in place, but the (FWP) commission and the Land Board also have to approve it. If this goes through, we’ll send the assessment to the (federal) office in Denver, and they’ll release the funds. It all hinges on the EA,” said FWP Wildlife Mitigation Coordinator Alan Wood.
The Haskill Basin property was appraised at $20.6 million, not an easy sum to come up with.
The City of Whitefish was very concerned about a private entity buying the property because it provides access to three-quarter of the city’s water supply. Without the Haskill Basin water, the city would have to purify water out of Whitefish Lake, which would cost an additional $500,000 a year.
People with The Trust for Public Land applied for and received grants totaling $9 million from two Land and Water Conservation Fund programs: the Forest Legacy Program and the Cooperative Endangered Species Conservation Fund.
The federal grants require matching funds so Stoltze agreed to contribute $3.9 million, basically knocking the amount off the purchase price.
“If the money hadn’t come through, we probably would not have gone forward with this project. It would have been too much to take on for the city of Whitefish, and it probably couldn’t have been done with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. They don’t have the financial wherewithal to do that,” Roady said.
With the guarantee of that contribution, the City of Whitefish was able to convince residents in April to pass a 1-percent increase in their resort tax to raise the remaining $7.7 million to pay for the easement. The City of Whitefish and FWP would co-own the easement by March 2016 if the arrangement were approved.
A similar arrangement has come together with the $12.7-million Trumbull Creek property although some fundraising remains to be done.
The Forest Legacy Program and Cooperative Endangered Species Conservation Fund have provided grants totaling $8.5 million, and Stoltze has donated $3.2 million of the land value.
The interested parties still need to raise $1 million, so FWP probably won’t take over the Trumbull Creek easement until the end of 2016.
Neither project would have come together without the LWCF. However, a month ago, Congress refused to reauthorize the 50-year-old program and unless it revives the law, any future collaborative efforts will likely fail.
But FWP still has to choose the preferred alternative in the EA.
To that end, FWP is holding a public meeting from 6:30 to 8:00 p.m. on Nov. 9 at the temporary city hall building in Whitefish to explain the project, field some questions and then allow public comment.
Public comment will be accepted until Nov. 22.