County commissioners approached about FWP conservation easement sought for Stimson land

By McKenzie Williams

 

On  Wednesday, June 12 the Lincoln County Board of Commissioners met for a regular session at the Lincoln County Courthouse. The major agenda item was a proposed Stimson Lumber land easement that would be held by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP).

FWP also held a meeting that evening to accept public comments and answer questions on the proposed easement.

Purchase of the conservation easement would protect approximately 22,295 acres of property that is currently owned by Stimson Lumber Company from future development. Stimson, The Trust for Public Land, and FWP are collaborating on the proposed project.

According to FWP, the easement would allow Stimson to continue to retain the timberlands and manage them while using sustainable forest practices and protecting valuable fish and wildlife habitat found on the large piece of property.

The property in question shares 133 miles of border with the Kootenai National Forest and  consists of various parcels stretching from the Salish Mountains on the east, through the Mitchell Creek-Kootenai River and Lower Fisher River drainages, along the Highway 37 corridor, and to the eastern edge of the Cabinet Mountain Wilderness Area.

Completion of the project could provide permanent, free public access for hunting, hiking, fishing, snowmobiling, cross country skiing, and other outdoor activities.

According to FWP’s  draft Environmental Assessment, “The proposed Kootenai Forestlands Conservation Project would be funded using a $6 million grant from the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) Forest Legacy Program (FLP). The other funding will come from a below market sale by the landowner and grant funding to be secured by the Trust for Public Land.”

At the commissioner’s meeting, Chris Deming of the Trust for Public Land, explained that the 27,929 acres owned by Stimson, if a conservation easement was purchased, would permanently prohibit subdividing and development while allowing for continued sustainable forest management, wildlife habitat protection, and public access.

He said benefits would include  maintaining Stimson Lumber Company’s ability to own and manage these lands long-term, providing local forest-based jobs that contribute to the local economy, and maintaining a local tax base. The plan also complements Lincoln County’s Growth Policy.

“We want to come here, we want to stay here,” said Barry Dexter, Stimson’s Director of Resources.

Darren Coldwell, County Administrator, expressed concern about gates potentially blocking public access similar to a recent situation in Troy. He asked if that would happen in this case.

Dexter said, “There are areas that roads need to be managed, but they are willing to work with people.”

Public comments on FWP’s proposal must be received by Saturday, June 29 at 5 p.m. They can be submitted online at http://fwp.mt.gov/news/publicNotices by email to ktempel@mt.gov, or by mail to Kris Tempel; 490 North Meridian Rd; Kalispell, MT 59901. A recommended decision to the Fish and Wildlife Commission is anticipated on July 12 after public comments have been reviewed and a final decision on the project is anticipated at the August 15 FWP Commission meeting.

Deming also discussed the Libby Community Forest Project which involves 140.7 acres of land owned by Stimson. In this case, he said, the objective is to provide the property for inclusion into the Lincoln County parks system, permanently prohibiting subdivision and development while allowing for sustainable forest management, public recreation, trail expansion, and wildlife habitat protection.

This project would expand recreational amenities created by the Lincoln County Port Authority and trail systems and be implemented with the assistance of the Libby Outdoor Recreation Association. It would also facilitate maintaining a productive forest adjacent to the central populated area, sustain local forest-based jobs that contribute to the local economy, secure public access to a favorite local recreation spot, complement Lincoln County’s Growth Policy, conserve important fish and wildlife habitat, and protects water quality along Libby Creek and within the Lower Libby Creek Watershed, Deming said.

The property consists of one parcel in central Libby along Spencer Road, 1.5 miles from Libby’s town center. Libby Creek splits the property in half. The property is bordered on the north by the US Forest Service and on the east by 319 acres of Montana State Trust Lands. Its inclusion into public ownership links to a network of approximately 120,000 acres within the Kootenai National Forest.

Deming said they are looking at a partnership with the Port Authority, Lincoln County, and the community if this is something the community wants. TPL will engage the community, and if this project comes to fruition, the property will be owned by the county.

Tony Petrusha, representing Libby Outdoor Recreation Association, and Tina Oliphant of the Port Authority and Kootenai River Development Council both expressed their support for the proposal. Commissioner Mark Peck also expressed that the project could lead to positive outcomes and thanked Deming for his presentations.