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New conservation area planned in Flathead, Lincoln counties

by SCOTT SHINDLEDECKER
Daily Inter Lake | July 9, 2020 1:00 AM

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing to develop a new conservation area west of Kalispell in Flathead and Lincoln counties.

The Service is seeking public comment on a proposal to create the Lost Trail Conservation Area. If created, it would authorize the Service to work with willing sellers to acquire conservation easements on up to 100,000 acres within the 116,000 acre Conservation Area boundary.

According to information from the Service, the conservation easements would secure public access, prevent residential development and allow for sustainable commercial timber harvests.

The easements would be similar to other existing easements in the area and similar to the 7,274-acre easement within the project area proposed for acquisition by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

The Service would use federal Land and Water Conservation Fund money to purchase easements within the Conservation Area. Fund money is derived from federal offshore oil and gas leasing and are not taxpayer dollars. No fee-title acquisition by the Service would be authorized.

The primary objectives of this land project include:

- Preserving important wildlife habitat and migration corridors;

- Providing public recreation access; and

- Allowing the property to be sustainably managed for timber production.

Within the proposed Conservation Area boundary are thousands of acres of land owned by Southern Pine Plantation. Southern Pine, a Georgia-based timber company. It recently bought 630,000 acres of timberlands previously owned by Weyerhaueser in Montana.

A Southern Pine spokesman said it would continue to enroll the land in the state’s Block Management Access program.

Southern Pine’s Eric Moody also told the Hungry Horse news the company would continue to pursue conservation easements that were in the works prior to the sale.

Plum Creek was negotiating with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks on easements near the Lost Trail Wildlife Refuge. It merged with Weyerhaeuser in 2016 and Weyerhaeuser absorbed Plum Creek’s timber and Montana land holdings.

The Lost Trail Wildlife Refuge is home to many species of wildlife, including elk, moose, bears, wolves, coyotes, songbirds, birds of prey and migratory waterfowl as well as amphibians and reptiles.

As a voluntary legal agreement between a landowner and the Service, a conservation easement is a perpetual agreement which the Forest Service would buy from a willing landowner. Easement prices offered to willing sellers would be determined by an appraisal completed by a Service-contracted appraiser familiar with the local market.

The conservation easements would secure public access, prevent residential development, and allow for sustainable commercial timber harvests. Easement land would stay in private ownership. Property taxes and invasive plant control would be the responsibility of landowners. Contracts would not restrict grazing on easement lands.

The 30-day period for comments began Wednesday, July 8.

People are asked to submit either written or e-mailed comments by Aug. 6 to:

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Attn: Ben Gilles

922 Bootlegger Trail

Great Falls, MT 59404

benjamin_gilles@fws.gov

Comments received during this period will help the Service determine public interest, identify potential issues that would require further analysis, and may provide insight for refining the proposal or for developing and analyzing one or more alternatives.

When the comment phase is complete, the Service will determine next steps, which may include conducting an environmental analysis with additional opportunity for public input or taking no further action on the proposed project.