By Andi Bourne

Two themes emerge for Clearwater-Blackfoot Project


September 20, 2018

SEELEY LAKE – After more than three years of gathering feedback about priorities and vision for the Clearwater-Blackfoot Project (CBP) area, The Nature Conservancy has identified two main themes for the land as they continue work through the transitions to new ownership. Along with seeking permanent conservation on the ground, recreational development and a community-governed ownership outcome are the two new focus areas that will further TNC's mission to connect people to the land.

Ownership transition

TNC purchased 117,152 acres in January 2015 from Plum Creek, named the CBP. In the beginning of 2018, they adopted the name "Montana Forests" to refer to land in the lower Blackfoot watershed including lands acquired through the Blackfoot Community Project, the Montana Legacy Project and the CBP.

"This reflects our wish, and need, to be thinking about permanent conservation outcomes for these lands all together, not in isolation," stated TNC's 2018 Summer Newsletter.

With the change in name, the ownership reflected on Montana Cadastral changed to Montana Checkerboard LLC, instead of the previous Clearwater Blackfoot LLC.

Only 5,500 acres has transferred ownership since the purchase of the CBP. The Bureau of Land Management purchased the Belmont Creek Tract, located just north of the popular Blackfoot River Recreation Corridor, at the end of 2016.

Western Montana Land Protection Director Chris Bryant presented the potential land transfer map in May at the Clearwater-Blackfoot Project Working Group meeting.

Currently the proposal identifies sales to: BLM, 40,454 acres; Community Forest/Private with conservation easement, 35,629 acres; Lolo National Forest, 28,512 acres; Montana Department of Natural Resources including an FWP Conservation Easement on some of the land, 25,770 acres and Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, 7,080 acres. Bryant said there are also a few small parcels that don't make sense for public ownership due to their location. They will be sold to a private investor with a conservation easement.

"The map is a draft and is subject to change," Bryant emphasized pointing out that TNC's role in private ownership of any of it is unknown. "That is not an outcome that is off the table but we would have to figure out how to fund that just like anyone else would."

According to Bryant, one of the main goals of the land transfers is to eliminate the checkerboard ownership and create large blocks of land for more effective management. He expects the Placid Gold project, the nearly 29,000 acres near Wisherd, Sheep Mountain, the upper West Fork of Gold Creek and the checkerboard west of Placid Lake, to take place in late 2018 or early 2019. The US Forest Service is slated to purchase this land, that is still in the appraisal process, using Land Water Conservation Funds that they received in fiscal year 2018.

TNC Western Montana Land Steward Steve Kloetzel said TNC continues with its commitments and goals for forestry management. This includes fixing issues on the land, including title work, easements and rights-of-way, prior to transitioning it to the agencies.

There is pre-commercial thinning and commercial thinning scattered throughout the CBP focused on the Placid, Lost Prairie and Twin Creek areas. By next year they will be doing mostly pre-commercial thinning in the Gold Creek area.

The road inventory that was completed in 2015 continues to guide TNC's efforts spraying weeds and prioritizing culvert and bridge upgrades.

Connecting people through recreation

Another goal for the CBP is to connect people to the landscape. They are doing this through exploring recreational opportunities and working in partnership with the University of Montana Forestry Department conducting studies on how wildlife responds to recreation.

Bryant said the demand for recreational opportunities in the last few years has increased greatly from the past and is one of the biggest driving interests on this landscape.

"Part of that is because of the landscape, but also the proximity to Missoula and Seeley where people use it and there is also more attention placed on recreation," said Bryant.

Bryant said that they have the opportunity to develop trails but it requires partnerships bringing funding and effort to the table. They also need to mesh any recreational development with the potential future owners.

Potential recreation development opportunities presented at the May meeting included:

• Hill 16 between Seeley and Placid: Non-motorized trails (in addition to existing snowmobile trails). Seeley Lake ROCKS taking lead for this.

• Twin Creeks area: Non-motorized trails winter and summer.

• Bicycle route between Seeley and Missoula using existing roads and trails. Completed and mapped as an Adventure Cycling route.

• Vaughn/Blanchard/Lost Horse: Open gates for 6-7 weeks for vehicle loop.

• Lost Prairie: Possible bike/hike/horse loop.

• Black Mountain Gold Creek Peak: Non-motorized trail.

• Non-motorized loop north of Primm.

With the shift towards more recreational use, Bryant said TNC is excited to be working with a group of science advisors at the University of Montana. This partnership produced the Community Forest Study "Enabling Conditions and Barriers to Community Forest Development in the Pacific Northwest" in 2017. Now scientists are using the CBP lands to study how hares, the primary food source for Canada Lynx, respond to thinning.

"Because we have so many young forests, we really want to see how to balance and protect that lynx habitat that is being occupied from catastrophic fire through fuel management but we also don't want that fuel management to harm the hare, the food source," said Bryant. "Balancing those silvicultural needs and the wildlife needs and then this fire resilience is the goal of that work."

Connecting people through the Community Forest model

The second focus is the idea of a community forest on nearly 36,000 acres. The Community Forest Study identified that every community forest is unique. Bryant thinks that private ownership with a conservation easement would be a "cool outcome" for this area. He said this would give a private landowner a stake in ownership that requires people to work closely with surrounding federal, state and private landowners to address cross boundary issues such as fire, wildlife or recreation.

This model is similar to the existing Blackfoot Community Conservation Area. The Blackfoot Challenge owns the core 5,600 acres of the BCCA that has a conservation easement in place. The addition 42,000 acres of the BCCA is collaboratively managed with surrounding landowners.

"I think [the BCCA model] would suit this area well especially if the community wants more say in how they want their national forest or state lands managed. It would be interesting to craft something that was at a larger landscape than just the core of the community-owned area," said Kloetzel.

Bryant said that while TNC has good partners and the current local agency leadership recognizes the need to think cross-boundaries, "This is not something you rush into but we are working on it."

The Community Forest Working Group hopes to identify potential leadership and a budget for the community forest this fall.

Bryant said, "We are grateful to have really good partnerships with all the agencies we work with."

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