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State approves conservation easement near Libby

by WILL LANGHORNE
The Western News | November 12, 2021 7:00 AM

State officials approved a nearly 30,000-acre conservation easement that would maintain public access to private timberlands south and east of Libby last month.

The Kootenai Forestlands Phase II Conservation Easement received approval from the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission on Oct. 28. The dispersed 27,289 acres covered in the easement represent highly productive timberlands and wildlife habitat owned by Stimson Lumber Co., according to Ken McDonald, administrator of the wildlife division at Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

“We feel the easement is good for wildlife, it's good for the people and visitors of Montana and it's good for the Libby and Lincoln County community,” said McDonald while speaking before the commission.

Under the terms of the agreement, FWP would hold the conservation easement while Stimson would retain ownership of the land. While the easement will prevent development, Stimson is allowed to sustainably harvest timber on the property. The public will have access to the area for non-commercial activities, including hiking, hunting, fishing and huckleberry gathering. Mineral rights that fall within the bounds of the easement are still valid, according to McDonald.

“The bottom line is that the department recognizes the existing mineral rights and the dominance of those mineral rights to the surface rights,” he said.

The conservation easement would preserve critical winter range for elk, deer and moose. The agreement also covers key bull trout, grizzly bear and Canada lynx habitat.

FWP received 71 public comments on the easement, 68 of which were in favor of the public-private partnership. One comment was a question.

To fund the easement, FWP officials secured $470,000 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 Forest Legacy Program.

Since a preliminary appraisal in 2019, the value of the easement increased significantly to $16.3 million. Officials with Stimson Lumber agreed to donate the difference between the original assessment and the current value, according to McDonald.

“They are donating well over $8 million to the cost of this,” he told the commission. “We are extremely, extremely appreciative of Stimson and their willingness to take this one to the finish line.”

The Kootenai Forestlands Phase II Conservation Easement, which received the backing of local officials including Lincoln County Commissioners, builds on other FWP forest legacy efforts in the area. The Thompson-Fisher Conservation Easement covers 142,000 acres, the Kootenai Valley Conservation Easement encompasses 28,000 acres and the Kootenai Forestlands Phase I Conservation Easement spans 22,000 acres.