Cruch time
for land exchange


Game Range Ramblin's

Game Range Articles by Mike Thompson,
FW&P wildlife biologist, writing for the Pathfinder




September 14, 2000
Seeley Swan Pathfinder
Seeley Lake, Montan


Where were you when the Y2K fire season officially ended?

Arguably, the official ending came at high noon on the day after Labor Day, when Governor Racicot rescinded most of the access closures across western Montana. And, while September 5, 2000 may not rank with November 22, 1963 or July 20, 1969 as a day forever etched in the collective memory of the human race, I think I might always remember how I spent that particular afternoon.

I was standing on the shoulder of Boyd Mountain with a team of specialists and administrators from the State Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC). Spreading beneath us and approaching the northeastern horizon was 4,800 acres of productive and largely unbroken forest, extending from near the Blackfoot-Clearwater Game Range headquarters clear to the northern edge of the old Dreyer Ranch. It is the newest proposed addition to the Clearwater State Forest.

Maybe I was just intoxicated with the clear air (not a puff of smoke in sight), the brisk feeling of early autumn in the breeze, the long-lost sensation of damp earth beneath my feet. But, that expansive, forested, elk range never looked so good.

If there has been a critical turning point this year for Phase II of the Game Range 50th Anniversary Project, September 5th was it.

Because the main purpose for our meeting was to discuss a revised timeline for Plum Creek Timber Company to exchange 3,040 acres of Game Range inholdings to DNRC, and for Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) to exchange 1,760 forested acres on the old Dreyer Ranch for an equal value of DNRC land in more-important elk winter habitat on Boyd Mountain. The fire season had dominated everyone's agenda since mid-July, and as a result we had fallen behind schedule for preparation of the draft environmental impact statement (EIS).

What's more, the strain on DNRC resources would not end when the fires go out. A major, Department-wide planning effort would be marshaled to salvage burned timber on DNRC land in the Bitterroot Valley and elsewhere, further distracting priority from the Game Range project. With the Phase II closing deadline only eight months away, I was prepared for bad news.

To my very pleasant surprise, my counterparts at DNRC had arrived at our meeting with a renewed resolve to bring this project to its conclusion by June 2001, as they had agreed with Plum Creek last spring.

It was a resolution not entered into lightly. There will be fact-finding and negotiations for a possible conservation easement to be purchased by FWP on DNRC lands in the Game Range. Negotiations and revisions will continue on an interim agreement that would bind FWP and DNRC to a general course of management on these same DNRC lands in the event that a conservation easement cannot be purchased. Potential impacts to soil, vegetation, water, wildlife, cultural and economic resources must be assessed for the proposed set of land exchanges and management agreements, as well as for a set of reasonable alternative actions. The draft EIS must be written, public input solicited and considered, and a final EIS and decision released. Approvals must be secured from the Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Commission and State Board of Land Commissioners. Never mind more than the usual load of details attended to by realty specialists, working hard behind the scenes.

This is not an effort that can be handled by missing a few coffee breaks in already overloaded schedules. Ultimately, some DNRC staff will feel the continued loss of evenings and weekends through hunting season and the holiday season to finish what the Seeley Lake community began with Phase I of the 50th Anniversary Project a little over two years ago.

After we finished our tour of the Game Range and were parting company, I heard someone say, "This land should never be developed."

That's when I knew for sure that your investment this summer in the Phase I purchase of the first 856 acres of Plum Creek inholdings will not fall short of its intended result. Your partners at FWP and DNRC are stepping forward to carry out Phase II.

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