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Commission OKs purchase of Lost Trail easement

by SCOTT SHINDLEDECKER
Daily Inter Lake | December 11, 2020 9:35 AM

Terry Zink of Marion is a lifelong bowhunter and houndsman and his comment about the Lost Trail Conservation easement was brief, but meaningful.

“I believe the residents of Marion and the Flathead Valley will appreciate this easement,” Zink said.

Zink made his comment during Thursday afternoon’s Montana Fish and Game Commission hearing on the proposed easement that will protect more than 7,000 acres of wild land favored by elk and deer as well as several other species.

Not long after Zink spoke, the Commission voted unanimously to approve the purchase by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

Jim Vashro of Flathead Wildlife also has strong feelings about the easement and its potential effects.

“It will more than double the effectiveness of the Lost Trail Refuge,” Vashro said. “We hope this easement will begin continued cooperation to establish future easements in the area.”

Conservation easements, depending on the agreement, allow the current property owner to maintain it while preventing human development, typically in the form of subdivisions.

For the Lost Trail easement, the deal is being made with Georgia-based Southern Pine Plantation, a large timber producer. Southern Pine bought more than 600,000 acres of timber land from Weyerhaeuser in 2019. In November, it was announced Seattle-based Green Diamond Resource Co. would buy 291,000 acres from Southern Pine. Part of that parcel includes the easement, but according to Fish, Wildlife and Parks, the agency will still close on the easement with Southern Pines, and the pending transfer of ownership “does not change any aspect of the environmental assessment other than the eventual owner of this property.”

In the public comment period for the project, 14 of 15 comments supported the acquisition of a conservation easement on the property.

The agency also received a 13-page letter from WRH Nevada Properties, an Idaho-based company that owns mineral rights underlying approximately 95% of the area proposed for the easement. Issues raised included how the easement might impact those rights and other “buyback” surface rights.

Bozeman attorney Peter Scott represents WRH Nevada and he repeated those assertions during Thursday’s meeting.

“The issue which needs to be discussed is a property owner not being approached about the purchase of mineral rights,” Scott said.

There was some brief discussion about the subsurface mineral rights, but Commissioner Shane Colton said “we have to be sure we’re not leveraged int0 buying mineral rights.”

Fish, Wildlife and Parks, as it had done previously, addressed the issues. In summary, FWP found “no significant impacts on the human or physical environments associated with this proposal; therefore, the EA [environmental assessment] is the appropriate level of analysis and an environmental impact statement is not required.”

The project is a collaborative effort involving Southern Pine Plantation Montana LLC, The Trust for Public Land and Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP).

The pending acquisition would protect vital timberlands, prevent development in the area, protect wildlife habitat and provide permanent public access, according to project documents.

The single block of land shares nearly 7 miles of border with the nearly 7,900-acre U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Lost Trail National Wildlife Refuge and more than 4,000 acres of Wetland Reserve Program easements, which are held by the National Resources Conservation Service.

The nearly 7,300 acres are also situated within the recently proposed Lost Trail Conservation Area — a project that, if approved, would authorize the Fish and Wildlife Service to acquire up to 100,000 acres of conservation easements from willing sellers within the designated boundary.

A decision notice for the proposal states the area would protect habitat for two large elk herds, one of which is “highly migratory,” and moves north from the Flathead Indian Reservation to the proposed easement lands, and eventually to an area on Flathead National Forest just west of Whitefish. It also includes the north slope of Dredger Ridge, a favorite walk-in elk hunting area that currently provides 400 days of public hunting access.

The property is also prime habitat for grizzly bear and Canada lynx, two species that are listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act. These species and others use the area as a movement corridor linking Glacier National Park to the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness.

The appraised value of the proposed easement is $4,550,000, which is a 20% increase from a preliminary estimate recorded in 2018, according to the environmental assessment. However, the purchase price for the easement would not exceed $4,362,000.

Funding amounts and sources include $900,000 from Habitat Montana, $50,000 from the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Trust and up to $3,412,000 from the U.S. Forest Service Forest Legacy Program, which is funded by the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

Reporter Scott Shindledecker may be reached at 758-4441 or sshindledecker@dailyinterlake.com.