by Suzanne Vernon
For the Pathfinder
December 18, 1997
Five miles of lakeshore and 2,500 acres of private land at Lindbergh Lake may become part of the Flathead National Forest if an agreement between Plum Creek Timber Company and the Trust for Public Lands succeeds during the next three years. If these lands are acquired by the federal government, it would bring three-fourths of the Lindbergh Lake shoreline under National Forest ownership.
The Trust for Public Lands, with support from citizens and conservation groups nationwide, is asking Congress to allocate $4 to $6 million annually over the next three years to buy the land from Plum Creek Timber. Land would be purchased in three phases, starting with acquistion of parcels on the south end of the lake near wilderness trailheads. Money for the purchase would come from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, a fund allocated from the government's sale of offshore oil leases for federal acquisition of private land.
Lindbergh Lake, which is part of the headwaters of the Swan River in the upper Swan Valley, is a popular recreation area for approximately 70 families that own homes there and countless other people who hike, hunt, fish, boat and canoe at the lake. The Lindbergh Lake area has been identified as a critical buffer for wildlife, including grizzlies and bull trout, and wildlife habitat because of its proximity to the Mission Mountains Wilderness. Several years ago, the Flathead National Forest expressed an interest in acquiring the private corporate land around Lindbergh Lake because of conservation and recreation concerns.
Several actions by private citizens and Plum Creek Timber led to the agreement signed earlier this fall giving the Trust for Public Lands the option to buy the land around Lindbergh Lake-valued at between $12 and $15 million-and then transfer that land to the Flathead National Forest. In recent years, people who currently own homes at Lindbergh Lake joined forces with national conservation groups to oppose more logging and development around the lake. At about the same time, Plum Creek was studying its landholdings and concluded that the Lindbergh Lake properties were among those least suited to longterm timber management.
"It's increasingly difficult to manage for timber next to water," Jerry Sorenson, Plum Creek's land use planning manager said recently. "It's not in the company's best interest to keep those lands for timber management," he added.
In addition, Charles Grenier, vice president of Plum Creek, said the company recognizes other important values in that area. "The pristine area of Lindbergh Lake has tremendous wildlife habitat values and recreational opportunities," he said.
About a year ago, Plum Creek began discussing the possible sale or exchange of some of its Lindbergh Lake properties. They were soon approached by the Lindbergh Lake Conservation Committee, a coalition of Lindbergh Lake homeowners who were seeking ways to prevent development and protect remaining natural resources around the lake.
According to Rachel Wright, executive director of the Lindbergh Lake Conservation Committee, homeowners were upset that Plum Creek might choose to log the land, then sell it. "The wildest section (of the lakeshore) didn't need to have cabins on it. Everyone was unified on that issue," she said.
The Conservation Committee formed a project group with representatives from the Lindbergh Lake homeowners groups, Flathead National Forest, Montana Land Reliance, The Nature Conservancy, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Vital Ground. This group, Wright explained, cooperated to propose a solution that would benefit everybody. Their resulting proposal pleased Plum Creek. The company placed a one-year moratorium on the logging of its land at Lindbergh Lake, and will not offer the land for sale to another buyer while the Trust for Public Lands (TPL) works toward the goals of the current agreement.
According to Maddie Pope, program director for the TPL in Bozeman, the Trust's job now is to let Congress know that the property is available and ready to be conveyed to public ownership. She explained that success of the project will require tremendous community support, which she believes already exists. All three of Montana's Congressional representatives support the project, she said, along with the governor, and the Missoula County Commissioners. In addition, she said, people in the Swan are very knowledgeable about their resources.
"We have brought the proposal before Congress. They've gotten a number of letters," she said. "It's a pretty big project by national standards," she explained, but added that residents of the Swan know that the area is valued on a national scale.
"The protection of Lindbergh Lake has significance to the greater Swan, and to the national forest." For Congress to add an area to a national forest, that area must have broad significance, she explained. "That is the merit of this project," she said.
Pope said she meets people every day who have some connection with Lindbergh Lake. "It is actually very well known and more widely used than we realize," she said. "It's a place that when you do go there, you always remember it." She described the area as a sensitive and scenic place where anyone can go easily and have a high quality, almost backcountry, experience.
Rachel Wright agrees. "Other people in other states have an interest in this project. It's important for them to just know that places like this exist," she said, adding that for Congressional funding to be approved, people need to write letters of support to their Congressmen. "The money is there in the Land and Water Conservation Fund. If it doesn't get spent on Lindbergh Lake, it'll get spent somewhere else," she said.