Land Board Approves
Phase II Land Exchange

Game Range Ramblin's



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

 


June 21, 2001
Seeley Swan Pathfinder
Seeley Lake, Montana


by Mike Thompson

 

We'll wait until after closing to celebrate.

 

But, Phase II of the 50th Anniversary Project came one giant step closer to completion with its unanimous approval by the State Board of Land Commissioners on Monday morning at the Capitol building, in Helena. The Board is comprised of the Governor, Attorney General, Secretary of State, State Auditor, and Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Now it's up to specialists in Plum Creek Timber Company, the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC), and Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) to pull the final paperwork together and complete the transfer of about 3,000 acres in the heart of the Game Range from Plum Creek to DNRC. Closing is expected in the next few weeks.

Combined with the Phase I purchase of 856 acres last year, the upcoming completion of Phase II will bring project partners more than halfway to their 50th Anniversary Project goal of transferring 7,800 acres in the Game Range from Plum Creek to public ownership.

Art Sikkink, Chair of the Game Range Citizens' Advisory Council, made the trip to Helena on Monday and spoke in favor of the proposed Phase II land exchange. Art emphasized the need for maintaining the integrity of the winter range for the elk and deer populations that migrate from the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area, and he viewed the Phase II proposal as "a win-win situation."

Steve Kelly, representing the Friends of the Wild Swan, offered the only other comment from the public. Steve urged the State to buy the lands in the Game Range from Plum Creek, rather than trading other State lands. His concern was that Plum Creek would harvest timber at an accelerated rate on lands it acquired in exchange from DNRC, and that resulting impacts to wildlife species on those scattered tracts, albeit minor (as predicted in the State's environmental impact statement), should be avoided.

Actually, FWP originally approached Plum Creek, and Champion International Corporation before them, with the idea of purchasing a conservation easement and exchanging timber on the lands that now define the 50th Anniversary Project. However, neither corporation was interested in selling a conservation easement to FWP. Instead, Plum Creek indicated an interest in developing a land exchange with DNRC.

And so, the Phase II strategy was born.

That's when FWP began collaborating with DNRC, not only in the process of developing an exchange package that would move as much Plum Creek land in the Game Range as possible, but also in the identification and evaluation of potential DNRC tracts for exchange.

As the State's wildlife steward, FWP could not promote a solution for the Game Range that would seriously compromise critical wildlife habitat elsewhere. So, we worked very diligently on the analysis of potential negative impacts to wildlife that was presented in the environmental impact statement. If there were likely impacts of a serious consequence to wildlife, we wanted to identify them and replace contentious tracts with other DNRC lands that might be better suited for exchange.

Our analysis showed that none of the DNRC parcels that were identified for exchange to Plum Creek contained critical wildlife habitat. This does not mean that wildlife does not occur on the State lands, nor that individual or family groups of animals will not be affected by a future change in management under Plum Creek ownership. It simply means that the DNRC lands do not contain exceptional or strategically located habitats that populations of wildlife depend upon. Any future changes in land management brought about by Plum Creek on these parcels are not expected to markedly alter the persistence and abundance of wildlife across the landscape.

In contrast, the continued integrity of the Game Range as winter range for entire populations of elk, mule deer, white-tailed deer and their associated predators and scavengers is very much dependent on the future disposition of lands currently owned by Plum Creek. That's why it is in the best interest of wildlife to complete Phase II.

Also in attendance at the Land Board meeting was Jerry Sorensen of Plum Creek Timber Company. Jerry reconfirmed his company's interest in completing all phases of the 50th Anniversary Project, and expressed his support for the State to continue moving forward.

I think now is a good time to remind all of us that Plum Creek is under no obligation whatsoever to cooperate with FWP, DNRC and the other project partners on this project. They are willing collaborators, and like the rest of us, have invested considerable resources on lengthy negotiations, timber cruises, land appraisals, title work and other expenses to bring us to this point in the process. We at FWP are indebted to the Plum Creek employees who have decided to work proactively with us to avoid a future development on the Game Range, when they could just as easily have profited from sales of smaller parcels on the open market.

And, it's hard to overlook the fact that several local Plum Creek employees have given generously of their personal time and money over the past three years to benefit the Blackfoot-Clearwater Chapter of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and the 50th Anniversary Project.

We've come a long way in that period of time, which just goes to show you that you can move a bigger load a lot farther when everyone pulls in the same direction. I know that's not always possible, but our recent success with the 50th Anniversary Project teaches me that diverse interests ought to try harder to make the most of the common ground that does exist.