Locals debate conservation easement

March 28, 2017 GMT

Flathead locals questioned what public access would look like in a potential 13,400-acre land conservation easement between Weyerhaeuser Co. and the state.

The Trust for Public Land currently has an option with Weyerhaeuser to secure a permanent conservation easement on 13,400 acres of land in the Upper Whitefish Lake watershed by Dec. 13, 2017.

The agreement would lock in public access as well as reciprocal access and timber management.

The Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation hosted a public hearing on March 23 to record questions from the public regarding the road system portion of the land agreement.

Dave Ring, the unit manager of the Stillwater unit of the department, said feedback from the hearing will help the department form an analysis that identifies the public’s concerns as well as searches for answers to locals’ questions.

“This process is kind of fast-tracking, the analysis needs to be done really by early May,” Ring said.

He said the conservation easement is up for consideration by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. According to the department, the agreement would provide protection for the Whitefish watershed and critical wildlife habitat, sustainable forest management and continued public recreation.

Another goal of the project is to establish permanent legal access to the state and to Weyerhaeuser for the area’s road system, according to the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.

Ring said the road project is contingent upon the Trust for Public Lands buying the property adjacent to the Stillwater State Forest known as the “Olney Block.”

IN 1980, Montana entered a cost share agreement that’s still active for Upper Whitefish Road with Burlington Northern, who had land now owned by Weyerhaeuser.

The easements exchanged provided a 66-foot-wide road for resource management purposes for each party.

In 2005, the state signed another agreement with then-owner Plum Creek in exchange for Lower Whitefish Road and a portion of Upper Whitefish Road, exchanging easements for a 40-foot wide road. Again, the deal was tied to resource management purposes.

The new easement for Upper Whitefish Road would elevate the access rights for both the state and Weyerhaeuser from resource management only to All Lawful Purpose.

For Lower Whitefish Road, the new deal would give the state and public access to the Lupfer Loop Connector Road. It would also give the state All Lawful Purpose to Lupfer Loop Road and Lazy Lupfer Road. The exchange would give Weyerhaeuser access to the Upper Jellison and Upper Jellison West roads as well as the Middle Jellison Road for resource management.

THE PUBLIC hearing allowed for proponents and opponents to give testimony regarding the possible agreement. No one spoke directly in favor of or against the project.

David Covill with the Flathead Snowmobile Association said like other audience members, he came to the meeting with questions instead of a stance on the proposal.

He said the association has a permit-relationship with Weyerhaeuser to use specific roads from December through April.

“Would other areas within this 13,400 acres be available, or would it be made off-limits to use by snowmobiling or other recreation that might happen throughout the year?” Covill asked.

Another audience member asked what “all lawful” meant for the public’s right to access the road system.

Lisa Axline with the department said aspects of the agreements worded as “all lawful” include rights for the public.

Ring said some roads in the agreement would be identified as open roads instead of public, meaning if the department “needed to go shut down a road, we could shut it down.”

He said the department would typically close a road to the public if there were road issues such as flooding or wildfires.

After the meeting, Ring said the department’s role in the easement centered on the road system, not the land. He said questions regarding the land exchange would fall to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, the Trust for Public Land or Weyerhaeuser.

The Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation will accept written comments regarding the road system project until April 7. For more information, call the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation at 406-751-2240.

Reporter Katheryn Houghton may be reached at 758-4436 or by email at khoughton@dailyinterlake.com.