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State seeks to conserve 27,000 acres of Stimson Lumber land

by CHAD SOKOL
Daily Inter Lake | July 6, 2021 7:00 AM

Montana's Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks is seeking to purchase a conservation easement for more than 27,000 acres of forest and grassland in Lincoln County to preclude development, protect threatened wildlife habitat, improve public access and recreational opportunities, and allow the longtime owner of the land, the Stimson Lumber Co., to continue harvesting timber.

Parcels of the project land are scattered in the areas east of Libby and south of Montana 37 and the Kootenai River. They are surrounded mostly by state and federal protected lands, including the Kootenai National Forest. Altogether the project land totals 27,289 acres.

The department is seeking public comment on the proposed easement purchase, which it says would preserve habitat for many species, including elk, deer, moose, pine martens, bald eagles, black bears, three packs of wolves and three species listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act — grizzly bears, bull trout and Canada lynx.

Hunting, fishing and other recreational activities, already permitted on much of the property, would be allowed to continue in perpetuity, even if the property is sold to a new owner. Camping would not be permitted on the property. Motorized vehicles, including electric bicycles or e-bikes, would be limited to open roads and not allowed on backcountry trails.

The project, dubbed the Kootenai Forestlands Phase II Conservation Easement, would join the nearby 142,000-acre Thompson-Fisher Conservation Easement, the 28,000-acre Kootenai Valleys Conservation Easement and the 22,295-acre Kootenai Forestlands Phase I Conservation Easement, which was established in 2003.

KRIS TEMPEL, a habitat conservation biologist with Fish, Wildlife and Parks, said Stimson Lumber has expressed a willingness to sell the easement for less than market value. But the appraised value of the property has soared 83 percent since the department made a preliminary cost estimate in 2019. It's now valued at $16.3 million, according to a draft environmental assessment the department issued last month.

Tempel said the price increase is the result of Northwest Montana's blazing hot real estate market. In addition to an influx of people from out of state buying up homes and land for top dollar, several timber companies have bought and sold large swaths of land in Lincoln County in recent years, driving up prices.

"I think the market's just gone crazy," Tempel said. "We've never seen an increase like that. We've seen maybe 20 percent, which felt like a lot to us. But now it's just through the roof."

To make the purchase, Fish, Wildlife and Parks already has secured $400,000 from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, $50,000 from the Montana Fish and Wildlife Conservation Trust, and $6 million from the U.S. Forest Service's Forest Legacy Program.

"The landowner is likely willing to sell the conservation easement at below market value, but given the large increase from the preliminary estimate, the department is exploring the possibility of securing additional funding from the Forest Legacy Program," the draft environmental assessment states.

The department and Stimson Lumber also have developed a "multi-resource management plan," an agreement separate from the conservation easement that "describes those steps that Stimson must take to conserve environmentally important fish and wildlife habitat, including such matters as managing temporary and permanent roads, restrictions on sand and gravel extraction, managing seasonal public use and preserving special habitat features — all while allowing for continued compatible timber and other resource management activities."

THE PROPERTY currently produces an estimated 2 million to 3 million board feet of lumber each year. Lincoln County historically has been one of the top timber-producing counties in Montana, but the industry is no longer the economic boon it was several decades ago. Accordingly, Fish, Wildlife and Parks says the proposed conservation easement would meet the objectives of the county's 2019 growth policy.

"Decreasing timber harvests, coupled with the corresponding closures and destruction of wood products mills, have resulted in steady declines in forestry and manufacturing employment," the growth policy states. "There are currently no large-scale dimensional lumber mills operating in Lincoln County, although many local workers, haulers and contractors work to support mill operations in Flathead County and Idaho and elsewhere."

Despite that downward employment trend, the growth policy says the county's economic outlook is "not all doom and gloom," as the area is buoyed by increasing tourism.

"Lincoln County is also increasingly being recognized as one of the last undiscovered areas in Montana for high-quality outdoor experiences without the crowds," the policy states. "This, in turn, can help stimulate people and businesses moving to the county."

A public hearing on the proposed conservation easement is scheduled for July 14 at Libby City Hall, 952 E. Spruce St. More information about the project, including a map of the property and the draft environmental assessment, can be found at fwp.mt.gov.

Written comments must be submitted to Fish, Wildlife and Parks by 5 p.m. on July 28. They can be emailed to Tempel, the biologist, at ktempel@mt.gov or mailed to the department's Kalispell office at 490 N. Meridian Road.

The department aims to forward a recommendation to the state Fish and Wildlife Commission by July 30 and have a final decision on the project by Aug. 20.