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Another key place conserved on Stillwater River

| July 21, 2021 11:10 AM

By SCOTT SHINDLEDECKER

For the Hungry Horse News

Ryan Hunter is a husband and a parent, both of which give him great joy.

But when his work as a land protection specialist with the Flathead Land Trust results in a new piece of protected land, it also gives him a feeling of exhilaration that isn’t easily matched.

Last week, Hunter, who is celebrating 12 years with the Flathead Land Trust, led a number of tours of his group’s most recent achievement: the Stillwater Conservation Easement.

Earlier this year, the Flathead Land Trust worked with the F.H. Stoltze Land & Lumber Co. and The Trust for Public Land to secure an easement that protects nearly 1,100 acres of open space, wildlife habitat and public access.

“This property is pretty unique,” Hunter said. “It borders state trust land and national forest land. It’s been in private ownership since before the turn of the last century.”

Hunter said Plum Creek Timber Co., which existed until 2016, owned the land in the 1970s before selling it to Cindy and Alan Horn in the ‘90s.

The Horns decided to donate the land to The Trust for Public Land in 2017.

Stoltze Lumber owns the property, and the easement allows it to harvest timber while keeping it open for public use, such as hunting or exploring. Access will be walk-in only.

Paul Travis, executive director of the Flathead Land Trust, said the land was donated with the stipulation that it be for conservation purposes.

“It’s one of the last pieces of private land in that area,” Travis said at the time the deal was closed. “The conservation easement protects open space, public access and wildlife habitat while also allowing for sustainable timber management.”

AS THE group walked a mile or so on an old dirt road to the Stillwater River, some spotted tracks of deer and elk. The area, located between the upper and lower Stillwater lakes, is just west of U.S. 93 and about 18 miles north of Whitefish.

Mosquitoes hovered and took their shots at a quick meal while the group admired the flow of the river on gentle, wide bends and as it raced down an area called the Stillwater Narrows.

The parcel includes 30 acres of wetlands, important for wildlife diversity.

The river was important to tree cutters who built splash dams which helped float the precious resource to mills where it could be turned into lumber.

“It’s a pretty nice piece of land. There’s tree value. It’s a unique area and there aren’t a lot of options in the Flathead Valley for forest management,” said Paul McKenzie, vice president and general manager of Stoltze Lumber. “The purchase price was pretty high, but it gives us land where we can have a long-term forest management plan and a few small development opportunities.”

About 11,000 acres of Stoltze property are in conservation easements. The Haskill Basin and Trumbull Creek easements account for about 10,000 acres.

IT’S THE third project Stoltze has worked on with The Trust For Public Land and the company’s first working with Flathead Land Trust.

The Flathead Land Trust also is in the midst of completing a deal to secure 800 acres of land in Bad Rock Canyon, just west of Columbia Falls.

The trust, formed 36 years ago, has done remarkable work in an area where property values keep increasing. It holds 60 easements that have protected more than 15,000 acres in the region.

It was honored in 2013 when it received the Montana chapter of the Wildlife Society’s Wildlife Conservation Award.

The trust helped form and steer the Flathead River-to-Lake Initiative, which has focused on conservation efforts along the main stem Flathead River, its sloughs and the north shore of Flathead Lake.

The trust also is preparing for its annual fundraising event, The Land Affair, on Aug. 19.

Tickets for the event cost $50 each. They can be purchased at flatheadlandtrust.org or by calling 406-752-8293.

The event will begin at 6 p.m. at the Snowline Acres and Ashley Creek Historical Venue at 3315 U.S. 93 S. in Kalispell.