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Lost Trail easement goes to commission for final approval

by KIANNA GARDNER
Daily Inter Lake | November 28, 2020 12:00 AM

After reviewing public comment, potential environmental effects and other relevant information, a proposal for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks to purchase a large conservation easement near Marion will now go before the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission for final approval.

Known as the Lost Trail Conservation Easement, the purchase would protect approximately 7,256 acres in Northwest Montana. The proposed conservation 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.

A one month public comment period for the project expired on Nov. 8. During that time, FWP received 15 public comments, 14 of which supported the acquisition of a conservation easement on the property.

In addition to one statement of concern, the agency 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.

The agency addressed the issues raised and further discussed those in its recently released decision notice. 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 decision notice also notes that during the public comment period the Green Diamond Resource Co. announced it would be purchasing 219,000 acres from Southern Pines Plantation Montana LLC — a parcel that includes the prospective 7,256-acre easement.

However, according to FWP’s decision notice, the agency will still be closing on the easement with Southern Pines, as was proposed in the draft EA, and the pending transfer of ownership “does not change any aspect of the environmental assessment other than the eventual owner of this property.”

The Lost Trail Conservation Easement will go before the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission on Dec. 10. If members approve the purchase, FWP hopes to move swiftly and close on the deal by the end of the year.

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 Kianna Gardner can be reached at 758-4407 or kgardner@dailyinterlake.com