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Potential land easements could increase public access in Northwest Montana

| July 29, 2020 3:36 PM

If you are a camper, hiker, hunter, angler, 4-wheeler, huckleberry picker or just like the outdoors, you are about to be given a huge gift of land for recreation use.

Folks living or playing in Western Montana are already blessed with a wealth of public land managed by the U,S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks and U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

These lands, which total millions of acres, are managed by these federal and state agencies. Each agency has somewhat different rules for public use, but essentially all or most of these lands are open to free public use for a wide variety of recreation uses.

National Forest lands are perhaps the most liberal with respect to how you, the general public, can use these lands. For all practical purposes, the millions of acres of National Forest land in Western Montana are all open to hunting and you can set up your camp most anywhere on National Forest land.

National Park land is open to many recreation uses, but National Park officials have tight controls on where you, the public, can camp and all hunting is prohibited.

National Wildlife Refuges tend to have many restrictions on public recreation uses.

But intermingled with these millions of acres of public land were over one million acres of corporate timber lands. In most other states, corporate timber lands are leased to private citizens for a variety of recreation uses such as cabin sites, camping, fishing and hunting.

These corporate land leases for private use are not inexpensive. For instance, for motorized access to hunt and recreate on a 200,000 acre tree farm in Western Washington, owned by Weyerhaeuser, the annual cost is $300.

But Montana citizens have been blessed with a corporate land policy that allows free public

use. Part of this is due to the generosity of the corporate land owner and part is due to the scattered or unconsolidated nature of most corporate landownership.

Corporate land is often intermixed with public land, so it is difficult to provide “exclusivity” to the corporate land lessee.

Many forest land access roads and logging roads are jointly owned by public and private entities, so it is difficult to stop the public from driving to and across corporate timber land.

Several years ago when Plum Creek Timber Company sold their Montana timber lands to

Weyerhaeuser, there was widespread public concern about whether free public use of these lands would continue.

Thanks to Weyerhaeuser, free public use continued. This same concern was expressed by the public when Weyerhaeuser sold their Montana lands to Southern Pines Plantations last winter.

The good news is that Southern Pines will keep their Montana lands open to free public use,

at least in the near future. But the better news is that Southern Pines has entered into discussions with the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Forest Service, the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks and non-profit conservation groups, to sell conservation easements on more than 230,000 acres of their corporate timber land.

These easements would guarantee continued pubic use in perpetuity. There is a current proposal for a 100,000 acre conservation easement around the Lost Trail National Wildlife Refuge and a second proposal for a 130,000 acre conservation easement south of the Lost Trail easement, down to the Thompson Chain of Lakes.

Together, these two proposals are referred to as the Montana Great Outdoors Project. These two proposed easements would tie in with the existing 142,000 acre conservation easement along the Thompson and Fisher Rivers.

These two proposed conservation easements would permit continued public use for a wide

variety of public recreation uses. The easements would also allow continued land management for a flow of timber products to support Northwest Montana’s important timber industry. This seems to be a win-win for all parties.

A key player in these proposals is Montana Senator Steve Daines. Sen. Daines and Sen. Gardner from Colorado, met privately with President Donald Trump to gain his support for

conservation spending.

Prior to this meeting with the President, the President’s draft 2021 spending bill had only $20-30 million for public land and easement purchases.

After their White House meeting, the President agreed to support $900 million for buying public land and easements. Senator Daines sits on the several Senate committees and sub-committees involving public lands and natural resources, so he should be in a good position to help secure funding for these two important conservation easements in Northwest Montana.

Both of these conservation easement proposals are just getting started and will take years to complete. The most advanced current easement proposal is for the 100,000 acre conservation easement around the Lost Trail National Wildlife Refuge.

Currently, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is accepting public comments on this proposal.

Send your comments to Ben Guiles at 406-727-7400, extension 232 or gilles@fwsgov.

Also send your thanks to Montana’s U. S. Senator Steve Daines for supporting these important outdoor recreation projeccts.