Several thousand acres of land in the Blackfoot Divide could become public property by the end of this year if a US Bureau of Land Management planning study is successful and funding remains available.
Missoula County supports the effort, saying that using land and water conservation funds to secure the property “would add to the heritage of conservation and partnership in the Blackfoot Watershed.”
Once owned by Plum Creek, the property was acquired by The Nature Conservancy, who now intends to transfer the 11,000 acres to BLM for future public access and beneficial management.
“This latest stage is to work with BLM to acquire some of these remaining parcels from The Nature Conservancy,” said Chet Crowser, Missoula County’s planner. “They will be looking for land and water conservation funds to complete this phase of the acquisition.”
The Nature Conservancy bought the land from Plum Creek to prevent future developments, improve restoration, and protect public access. As Montana’s population has grown, such areas are also valued for their development potential and proximity to the city, raising concerns about greater wildlife habitat fragmentation.
Erin Carey, the sales manager at BLM’s Missoula office, said her agency had an environmental assessment for review and public comment. The property is located in the Ninemile-Woodchuck area of the Blackfoot watershed.
“It is the next step in a multi-step process in which we are working with The Nature Conservancy to acquire some of this former forest land,” said Carey. “We are still going through the environmental review and have to make a decision about it and continue our public engagement.”
BLM began exploring potential acquisitions in the area in 2015 after TNC secured more than 117,000 acres in the Blackfoot-Clearwater area from Plum Creek Timber. This included 13,000 acres south of Placid Lake, which the BLM partially secured last June.
Nature Conservancy’s efforts to sell the former woodland to the BLM and the US Forest Service could create more than 25,000 acres of new public land near Missoula, with the potential for more.
Carey said the agency will finalize the purchase once the appraisal is complete, followed by a property appraisal to determine the value. If a purchase is approved, she said land and water conservation funds are available.
“We have a large portion of the LWCF lined up and ready to buy by the time everything goes through the planning page,” said Carey. “We’d complete the purchase in a couple of different stages as this is what we’re going to get to do.”
The proposed acquisition is approximately 30 miles east of Missoula up Johnsrud Road. If the BLM acquires the property, Carey says it would be managed for recreation, forest health and climate change mitigation.
It would also help restore habitat for threatened and endangered species, including grizzly bears, wolves, and Canada lynx. Existing pasture areas would also go hand in hand with the transfer to BLM ownership.
“We would honor these existing uses,” said Carey. “Looks good for LWCF funding for the purchase.”
Since purchasing the land from Plum Creek, The Nature Conservancy has done its part to restore forest and wildlife habitats. Missoula County and other nonprofits have worked with TNC on other acquisitions in the past and are excited to see how the Ninemile Woodchuck deal comes about.
“Many of these were plots for the North Pacific that were given to the railroad in the 19th century to get a railroad through here,” said Dave Strohmaier, Missoula County Commissioner. “You have changed hands a couple of times. It is only fitting that they should be added back to the public estate for public access. “