MISSOULA — Several thousand acres of land in the Blackfoot watershed could move into public ownership by the end of this year if a U.S. Bureau of Land Management planning study finds success and the funding remains available.
Missoula County is backing the effort, saying use of Land and Water Conservation Funds to secure the property would “add to the legacy of conservation and partnership in the Blackfoot watershed.”
Once owned by Plum Creek, the property was acquired by The Nature Conservancy, which is now looking to transfer the 11,000 acres to the BLM to ensure future public access and beneficial stewardship.
“This latest phase is intended to work with BLM for acquisition of some of those remaining parcels from The Nature Conservancy,” said Missoula County planner Chet Crowser. “They’ll be looking for Land and Water Conservation Funds to complete this phase of the acquisition.”
The Nature Conservancy purchased the land from Plum Creek to prevent future development, to enhance restoration and protect public access. As Montana’s population has grown, such areas also are prized for their development potential and proximity to the city, leading to concerns over more fragmentation of wildlife habitat.
Erin Carey, the field manager for the BLM office in Missoula, said her agency has an environmental assessment out for review and public comment. The property is located in the Ninemile-Woodchuck area of the Blackfoot watershed.
“It’s the next step in a multi-phased process, where we’re working with The Nature Conservancy to acquire some of these former timberlands,” Carey said. “We’re still going through the environmental assessment and need to make a decision on that and continue our public engagement.”
The BLM in 2015 began reviewing potential acquisitions in the area after TNC secured more than 117,000 acres in the Blackfoot-Clearwater area from Plum Creek Timber. That included 13,000 acres south of Placid Lake, which the BLM secured in part last June.
The Nature Conservancy’s efforts to sell the former timberland to the BLM and U.S. Forest Service could create more than 25,000 acres of new public land near Missoula, with the potential of more to come.
Carey said the agency would complete the purchase after the assessment is finished, followed by a land appraisal to identify the value. If a purchase is approved, she said Land and Water Conservation Funds are available.
“We already have a big chunk of LWCF lined up and ready for the purchase if all goes through on the planning side,” Carey said. “We’d complete the purchase in a couple different phases as that funding comes to us for the purpose.”
The proposed acquisition is located about 30 miles east of Missoula up Johnsrud Road. If the BLM does acquire the property, Carey said it would be managed for recreation, forest health and to mitigate climate change.
It would also work to restore habitat for threatened and endangered species, including grizzly bears, wolves and Canada lynx. Existing grazing allotments would also come with the transfer to BLM ownership.
“We’d honor those existing uses,” Carey said. “Things are looking good as far as LWCF funding being available to make the purchase.”
Since acquiring the lands from Plum Creek, The Nature Conservancy has done its part toward forest restoration and wildlife habitat. Missoula County and other nonprofits have worked with TNC in the past on other acquisitions and are eager to see the Ninemile-Woodchuck deal go through.
“Many of these were Northern Pacific land grant parcels that were provided to the railroad in the 1800s to punch a railroad through here,” said Missoula County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier. “They’ve changed hands a few times. It’s only fitting they be added back to the public estate for public access.”