Lost Trail easement near Marion finalized

Another large swath of timberland in Northwest Montana will remain open to the public in perpetuity after groups finalized the purchase of the Lost Trail Conservation Easement. The 7,256-acre parcel near Marion will complement an existing network of public lands stretching across Flathead, Lake, Lincoln and Sanders counties.

Situated within the recently proposed 100,000-acre U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Lost Trail Conservation Area, the prized single block of land also shares nearly 7 miles of border with the 7,876-acre Lost Trail National Wildlife Refuge near Kalispell and is close to the sprawling 142,200-acre Thompson-Fisher Conservation Easement.

The property protects the entire north-facing slope of Dredger Ridge, which is one of the most popular elk hunting areas in Montana, according to a news release from the Trust for Public Lands, The lands, which slope down to Dahl Lake and other sensitive wetland areas, are also vital for protecting habitat for grizzly bears, Canada lynx and other threatened or endangered species.

The land deal was made late last year with Southern Pine Plantations, a Georgia-based timber real estate company that purchased 630,000 acres from Weyerhaeuser in late 2019. The company, doing business as SPP Montana, turned around and sold nearly 300,000 acres to Seattle-based Green Diamond Resource Co. in November and according to a recent article in The Western News, a dozen smaller SPP-owned tracts in Lincoln County have been purchased by limited liability companies and individuals as well.

Since Southern Pine purchased the Weyerhaeuser lands, conservation organizations and state agencies have been working with the company on ways to maintain public access on the lands, with the new easement being the latest accomplishment to emerge from those efforts.

Pat Patton, SPP Montana Manager, said the company recognizes that a viable timber industry and outdoor recreational access are both important to Montanans. He noted, “securing a conservation easement on these lands provides a long-term solution toward preserving both.”

SOUTHERN PINE will remain the landowner of the nearly 7,300-acre parcel and will continue to sustainably harvest timber in the area, while Fish, Wildlife and Parks will hold the conservation easement.

The Trust for Public Land, an organization that creates parks and protects land for people, negotiated and managed the establishment of the conservation easement. The project builds on the Trust’s long history of working in the region. For more than 20 years, the organization has preserved more than 600,000 acres in Montana.

“This project truly meets a triple bottom line by providing outdoor access for the community, protecting wildlife habitat and ensuring timber harvest can continue,” said Catherine Schmidt, a field representative with the Trust. “It’s projects like this that demonstrate the power of conservation for communities across Montana.”

Funding for the conservation easement came from the U.S. Forest Service Legacy Program, Habitat Montana, and the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Trust. The final cost of the acquisition was not provided, though the appraised value of the easement is around $4.5 million, which is a 20% increase from a preliminary estimate that was recorded in 2018.

Montana state officials also praised the purchase.

Senators Steve Daines and Jon Tester, along with newly elected Gov. Greg Gianforte, hailed the project as an example of public-private partnerships and acknowledged the parcel’s value.