Funding in place for conservation easement

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Funding has been completed for the next phase of a 13,400-acre conservation easement northwest of Whitefish Lake.

A $2 million federal grant announced last week will fund the final piece of the Whitefish Lake Watershed Project, which is expected to help protect wildlife, encourage timber production, and provide public access for hunting, fishing, hiking, mountain biking, and other outdoor recreation.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service awarded the grant through the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

Seattle-based timber company Weyerhaeuser previously decided to sell the property, but agreed to give the Trust for Public Land the first option to buy and conserve it. A series of complex land maneuvers have paved the way for the project.

The entire project easements are being completed in phases. The first was completed in February when Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks purchased the easement on the 7,000 acres using $15.5 million in state, federal and private funds. The Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation ultimately bought the property from TPL.

The second phase of the project is about 3,000 acres worth $6.5 million.

The state Land Board in July approved the project. Adding to the $2 million federal grant, $4 million came from the U.S. Forest Service’s Forest Legacy Program, while $500,000 came from the state’s Habitat Montana program.

“This grant affirms the vital importance of the multi-phased Stillwater project, which is a true homerun for public access, water quality, and habitat protection,” said Dick Dolan, Northern Rockies Director for The Trust for Public Land in a prepared release. “The Trust for Public Land is proud to participate in this collaborative partnership with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, the Weyerhaeuser Company, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Forest Service, and other partners, and we could not be more grateful to the Montana delegation for their steadfast support of the project, this latest funding installment, and the Land and Water Conservation Fund that provides these critical funds.”

Now that funding has been secured, FWP is expected to work toward finalizing the conservation easement.

The two phases, totaling about 10,000 acres, will be owned by the DNRC as part of the Stillwater State Forest. FWP will hold the conservation easements.

The third phase of the project, known as the Swift Creek section, includes 3,000 acres. The Bonneville Power Administration is expected to provide about $11.5 million in funding and to retain a perpetual conservation easement on that section with ownership being transferred to the state.

The project has received support from Montana’s U.S. Senators.

“There are few places as important as the Whitefish Lake watershed and these funds will ensure that folks can access the trails and streams in northwest Montana for future generations,” U.S. Sen. Jon Tester said. “Investments from the Land and Water Conservation Fund help drive Montana’s growing outdoor economy, and I will relentlessly defend LWCF so we can keep expanding public access to our public lands.”

“This area is critical for the protection of wildlife, recreation, timber management and Montana jobs,” U.S. Sen. Steve Daines said. “This grant will help Montana continue its efforts to conserve this area and contribute to our $7 billion outdoor economy.”

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