State seeks Swan lands

A proposed land acquisition by the state of Montana could lock up nearly 10,000 acres of fish and wildlife habitat in the Swan Valley west of Highway 83.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) two weeks ago released a draft environmental assessment of the proposal, known as the West Swan Valley Conservation Project. The agency would acquire or purchase conservation easements on 9,500 acres of land currently owned by Plum Creek Timber Co. that's set to transfer to The Nature Conservancy in November as part of the Montana Legacy Project. The checkerboarded lands, centered about 20 miles south of Bigfork in Lake County, are interspersed with state trust lands that make up the eastern half of the Swan River State Forest.

FWP has had its eyes on the land since 2005, according to FWP Wildlife Mitigation Coordinator Alan Wood, and he says two things happened recently to make the acquisition possible: The Nature Conservancy entered into a contract with Plum Creek to buy the land with the intention of transferring ownership to a conservation buyer, and the Bonneville Power Administration made at least $15 million available for the project through its Columbia Basin Fish and Wildlife Mitigation Program.

"It's the merging of those things that's led to the opportunity," Wood says.

The total cost of the project won't be known until after the land is appraised, and after the public comment period, which ends Sept. 7. Depending on the results of those two steps, the agency will decide whether to buy the land, buy conservation easements, or a mix of both.

Regardless, land management objectives would change.

"The Bonneville Power Administration money provides an increased emphasis for resident fish," Wood explains. "So whether it's a conservation easement or FWP ownership, we'll have measures that would significantly restrict any timber management along the cutthroat trout streams, for example. A lot of the other stuff, in terms of road management and grizzly bear measures, probably wouldn't change a lot."

FWP scheduled a public meeting for Thursday, Aug. 19, at the Swan Lake Community Hall at 7 p.m.

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