Public-private partnership expands Stillwater Forest

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The addition to the Stillwater State Forest includes a mix of meadows, streams, small lakes and ponds and forest. The land is part of the Whitefish Lake Watershed Project. (Chris Peterson/Whitefish Pilot)

The long-standing effort to expand the Stillwater State Forest northwest of Whitefish recently completed its final phase, stirring kudos from conservationists and conservatives alike.

The parties involved hailed the milestone as good news for grizzly bears, elk, Canada lynx, westslope cutthroat trout, white-tailed deer and two-legged proponents of public access, ranging from recreationists to loggers.

The final phase of the Whitefish Lake Watershed Project, completed last week, added 6,380 acres to the state forest, bringing the total acreage to 13,398 acres of once privately owned timber land that will now be managed by the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.

Alan Wood, science program manager for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, described the lands acquired.

“This property includes an incredibly diverse mix of forest, meadow, wetland and streams that are crucial for iconic species like grizzly bears and popular game species like white-tailed deer,” Wood said.

The players involved have included the Trust for Public Land, FWP and DNRC.

The consummation of the complex but widely celebrated collaborative effort to expand the Stillwater State Forest elicited bipartisan calls Wednesday for full funding and permanent reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which Congress recently allowed to lapse.

Completing the final phase of the Whitefish Lake Watershed Project relied in large part on money from programs tied to the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Specifically, a $4 million grant from the U.S. Forest Service’s Forest Legacy program and a $2 million grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Cooperative Endangered Species Conservation Fund program provided key funding.

“This is a good example of why Congress needs to reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund,” said Mike Garrity, executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies.

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., said the Stillwater forest project offers an example of a collaborative effort “that strengthens our public lands and boosts our growing outdoor economy.”

Tester added, “This good news further underscores the urgent need to permanently authorize and fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund so Montanans can continue to build on our outdoor way of life and preserve it for future generations.”

U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., offered similar observations, noting that he “will continue to fight for permanent reauthorization and full funding of this important program.”

U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, R-Mont., also said he plans to work to permanently reauthorize the fund.

Participants in the effort to acquire the once-private lands for public use also thanked the former owner, Weyerhaeuser Corp., for demonstrating the patience and willingness necessary to make the deal happen.

Another participant was the Bonneville Power Administration’s Fisheries Mitigation Program, which paid $10.68 million to conserve 3,180 of the 13,398 acres added to the Stillwater State Forest. This acquisition allows for sustainable timber management while also protecting bull trout habitat in Swift Creek, an important water source for the community of Whitefish, according to Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

Reporter Duncan Adams may be reached at 758-4407 or dadams@dailyinterlake.com.

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