The first phase of the Whitefish Lake Watershed Project has been completed protecting more than 7,000 acres of forestland north of Whitefish.
A public-private partnership paved the way for the first phase of the easement, which looks to ultimately preserve a roughly 13,400-acre block of forestland as part of the multi-phase watershed project.
The Trust for Public Land, in partnership with the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks and Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, Thursday announced the completion of the first phase which focuses on the Lazy Creek section of the property. State, federal and private funds were used to complete the $15.5 million conservation easement.
Kristin Kovalik, senior project manager for TPL, said it’s “surreal” to have the first phase of the project complete after several years of work.
“It’s taken a few twist and turns to get here, but it feels great to have 7,000 acres in public ownership,” she said. “It’s a great day for Montana and for conservation.”
The groups worked together to acquire the land and the conservation easement that will permanently restrict commercial and residential development, along with protecting important fish and wildlife habitat, ensure sustainable forest management, and secure public access for recreation, according to a release by the organizations involved.
Kovalik said the project was a priority for TPL because it was so important to the “state agencies and hunting, fishing and recreation groups that were involved.”
“This area is important for its habitat and also for its recreation value and this preserves public access to the project,” she said. “There were a lot of reasons to support it.”
The land, spanning nearly 11 square miles, will be added to Stillwater State Forest, the largest state forest in Montana.
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 land maneuvers — TPL purchased the property and FWP purchased a conservation easement for the property and finally DNRC bought the property from TPL — allowed for the project’s completion.
The agreement represents the successful completion of the first phase of the Whitefish Lake Watershed Project, which encompasses forestland surrounded on three sides by Stillwater State Forest.
Shawn Thomas, Trust Lands Division Administrator, said the Trust Land Management Division of DNRC is excited to re-purpose land banking funds generated from the sale of isolated, low-performing tracts to bring this property back into state ownership
“These lands, which include some of the most productive timberland in the state, were originally granted to Montana’s trust beneficiaries by Congress in the late 1800s and were subsequently sold to private interests in the early 1900s,” Thomas said in a release. “This acquisition is truly a treasure returned to the state trust and the public who will enjoy it.”
Two sections of the total Watershed Project remain to be completed. An additional 3,000-acre chunk of the Lazy Creek section known as Phase II and the 3,000-acre Swift Creek section called Phase III of the project await protection.