LWCF grant helps preserve habitat near Columbia Falls

 A $2 million federal grant will help preserve logging and habitat in northwestern Montana, but it may be one of the last to do so if Congress doesn’t renew the Land and Water Conservation Fund by Sept. 30.

Last week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service awarded $2 million to the Trust for Public Land to help with the purchase of a conservation easement of almost 7,200 acres in the Trumbull Creek watershed near Columbia Falls.

The F.H. Stoltze Land and Lumber Company owns the property and might have had to sell it at some point to keep the company solvent.

But thanks to the money provided through the Land and Water Conservation Fund and donations from the city of Whitefish, Stoltze Land and Lumber has been able to place conservation easements on its property in the Trumbull and Haskill basins as part of the larger South Whitefish Range Conservation Project.

The USFWS identified the South Whitefish Range Conservation Project as being important for helping to protect working landscapes and providing wildlife habitat and corridors within the Crown of the Continent ecosystem. As such, it has been the only Montana project to receive these grants for the past two years.

“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.’ But if circumstances were to change, nothing in the easement forbids selling it. But the buyer has to agree to manage the forest, allow public access and maintain the watershed,” said Stoltze general manager Chuck Roady.

The funding is provided through the Cooperative Endangered Species Conservation Fund, a separate pool of federal money within the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Last year, the USFWS awarded a similar $2 million grant to help purchase the easement in the Haskill Basin near Whitefish.

Another pool of LWCF money, the Forest Legacy Program, has also contributed grants to the easements. Last year, the Haskill Basin project received a $7 million grant and the Trumbull received $6.5 million.

Finally, Stoltze donated a portion of the estimated $33 million value of the easements to provide a match for the grants. That leaves just $1 million that project coordinators need to raise.

Management of the easements will ultimately be transferred to Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks. The agency conducted an environmental assessment in May, and the project received ringing endorsements from sportsmen's groups such as Backcountry Hunters and Anglers that know the areas produce healthy numbers of elk, moose and deer.

In a letter, BHA 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."

The conservation easements will allow Stoltze to continue harvesting timber, but otherwise the area will remain as open land for wildlife, hunters and recreationalists.

“If the money hadn’t come through, we probably would not have gone forward with this project,” Roady said. “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.”

FWP and Stoltze have been working on a management plan to clarify how timber management and public recreation would be balanced to maintain the overall fish and wildlife habitat values.

Roady said Stoltze has always allowed the public to use its land, especially the backcountry areas in the Haskill Basin.

FWP has cooperated in similar forest conservation projects for commercial timberlands in the Thompson, Fisher, Swan River, Kootenai and Lake Creek valleys.

The Trumbull Creek easement was just one of dozens of projects nationwide that received part of the $37.2 million allocated to the Cooperative Endangered Species Conservation Fund for this year.

But if the Land and Water Conservation Fund isn’t renewed, that money will be no more, and worthy projects that preserve both jobs and wildlife habitat may fail.

In 1965, Congress passed the LWCF to provide money for the development of parks and trails and the acquisition of public land and easements.

Each year, Congress can allocate up to $90 million from Atlantic Coast offshore oil leases, although Congress has rarely provided the LCWF with the full amount.

The law will sunset this year and partisan politics is threatening to kill any chance of renewal. In January, the Senate already failed to pass a bill that would have made the LWCF permanent.