By Skip Kowalski – President, Montana Wildlife Federation
Montanans are fortunate people. The Crown of the Continent is one of the most magnificent natural areas in the world. In many places, the land still looks a lot like it did when Lewis and Clark portaged the Great Falls and ascended the Rockies.
The lands in the Crown of the Continent region have a mix of public and private lands. These intermingled lands have been a part of Montana’s natural heritage for generations, and we sometimes take for granted the idea that they will remain so forever. Over the last few decades, however, transitions of timber companies into real estate trusts have left this legacy uncertain. Lands that were formerly managed for timber faced the possibility of being sold for development, with adverse consequences for wildlife habitat and watersheds. Development also posed a grave threat to the public access that Montanans had enjoyed for years to hunt, fish, and hike these lands.
Fortunately, the Nature Conservancy has taken another big step toward protecting these crucial lands for future generations through their recent purchase of more than 117,000 acres of former Plum Creek Timber land in the Blackfoot watershed. The Clearwater-Blackfoot purchase includes lands stretching from the Marshall Wildlife Management area to the Gold, Belmont, and Blanchard drainages. The project builds on more than 350,000 acres of protection already completed in western Montana, protecting important wildlife habitat and public access to the outdoors.
The Clearwater-Blackfoot lands are a hub for wildlife. One of the largest populations of grizzlies in the lower 48 states depends on these lands. They also serve as a stronghold for Canada lynx as well as a movement corridor for wolverines. Not to mention, this area includes some of the richest big game habitat in Montana. The area is used by more than 7000 deer and elk hunters every fall.
Thanks to the Nature Conservancy’s work, this land will be protected for wildlife as well as public access to the places where many of us grew up hunting and fishing. Not only will this acquisition protect the values of the Crown of the Continent, it will also add to the landscape-scale conservation values of the lower Blackfoot by preventing fragmentation of important wildlife habitat, contributing to the working landscapes of the Blackfoot Challenge and protecting important portions of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail corridor to name a few. Over time, this effort will knit together the patchwork of public and private land that has made land management challenging over the years.
The Nature Conservancy has already started meeting with communities, interest groups, scientists and public agencies to discuss the best possible outcomes for these lands. The organization is serious about getting input from the people who use or care about these lands and waters. The Montana Wildlife Federation plans on getting involved in this project, and I encourage everyone with an interest in these lands to let the Conservancy know what you think regarding the future of the Clearwater-Blackfoot Project.
In this age of austerity for government funding for conservation, we’re going to need to be more vigilant than ever in protecting land and water for future generations. A landscape this important demands conservation at a massive scale, and it demands the engagement of everyone who cares about it.