Conservation easement sought near Libby

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The Stimson Lumber Company owns forestland across the Pacific Northwest, but it sees challenges in Northwest Montana’s growing population.

Barry Dexter, the firm’s director of resources, says that developing areas’ lands “come out of timber production and go into mini-ranches or home sites for folks, and so that’s a little challenging for a fire management perspective, and it reduces the amount of land for the timber base.”

About 22,275 acres of the company’s land near Libby could avoid that outcome. If Stimson, conservation groups, state officials and Montana’s congressional delegation have their way, a conservation easement will allow forestry there to continue while preventing development.

Dan Vermillion, chair of Montana’s Fish and Wildlife Commission, had a hand in crafting the proposal.

“To me and to the commission, it’s a perfect confluence of conservation and sustainable timber management, and it’s a really good model of how it’s supposed to work.”

Under a conservation easement, a landowner agrees to place certain restrictions on use of the land. Those restrictions are bought and held by a land trust or government agency, and stay on the land even if it’s sold.

“There’s a lot of success with these projects in Western Montana,” Vermillion told the Daily Inter Lake. In 2012, Stimson transferred an easement on nearly 28,000 acres along the Idaho border to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

That purchase was funded by the U.S. Forest Service’s Forest Legacy Program, which awards grants to states for this purpose.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks decides which programs get submitted to the program’s annual grant competition. In preparation for the Fiscal Year 2019 cycle, another chain of Stimson properties within Kootenai, forming an arc around Libby, stood out.

“It’s forested land and would be maintained as a working forest with conservation values,” explained Ken McDonald, wildlife division administrator for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

The proposed easement, he stressed, “doesn’t take it out of the management scheme.” Stimson will retain the right to harvest timber on the land. But the easement “helps ensure [that] the management and the long-term use of that land is compatible with wildlife.”

Montana chose the property as its sole entry in what’s described as a highly competitive grant process. If it advances, an appraisal will determine its value. For now, the state’s requesting $6 million for the easement. It awaits assessment by a national review panel, which will rank the submitted proposals in mid-January.

Its odds improved Tuesday, when each member of Montana’s congressional delegation signed a letter to Forest Service Chief Tony Tooke requesting the land receive priority ranking.

“Showing elected official support is an important element” of the decision process, explained Kathy DeCoster, the Trust for Public Land’s director of federal affairs. Her group is working with the state and Stimson to realize the easement, and joined them in seeking the delegation’s support.

“We are very grateful to the delegation for their support on this project,” she said.

But the easement remains far from final. If it ranks highly enough in January, it will be included on a Final Project List sent to the House and Senate Appropriations Committees during the budget-making process.

If and when the funding comes through, it will then face a separate state process, involving an appraisal of the easement’s value, an environmental assessment and public comment. McDonald predicted this would take nine to 12 months after the grant’s approval.

But that’s worth it for this swath of timber and wildlife, say those involved.

Along with recreation, “obtaining a conservation easement for this site would ... allow sustainable timber harvest to keep producing 4 million board feet of timber ... along with 20 full-time jobs,” Montana’s senators and congressman wrote in their letter

“I don’t think their number’s too far off,” said Barry Dexter, Stimson’s director of resources. In a typical logging crew, “you can have up to 15 people on one particular property,” he noted, along with secondary positions created by the work.

“These are industrial timberlands, and so we routinely harvest timber, plant trees and thin trees,” he explained. The easement, he predicted, “would not impact appreciably the amount of timber that comes off the property.”

And “the lands that are currently open, they will remain open for whatever type of recreation,” he said.

Vermillion shares that outlook. On the ground, he said, forest users would see little change.

“But long term, they can have security knowing that there’s sustainably harvested timber as well as protected public access.”

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