Land Board OKs major Whitefish conservation easement purchase

Kestral Aerial Photo

Vince Devlin, Missoulian

WHITEFISH – It’s not the final hurdle, but a five-year effort to protect Whitefish’s drinking water cleared an important one Monday in Helena, when the state Land Board approved the purchase of a conservation easement on Haskill Basin.

The vote was unanimous, according to Darlene Edge, Lands Program manager for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

The easement will also maintain public access to the 3,020 acres north of Whitefish and allow the property’s owner, F.H. Stoltze Land and Lumber Co., to keep the land in commercial timber production.

The Whitefish City Council must still approve the deal, which it will consider on Jan. 19, and a final appraisal of a conservation easement will be completed by the end of December that federal and state agencies involved will have to review.

“We hope to close in February,” Whitefish city manager Chuck Stearns said, “but we’ll still have to meet the requirements of two federal agencies, Fish, Wildlife and Parks, and the city. The appraisal is a big step.”

Final approval by all involved would formalize a century-old “handshake” agreement between the city and Stoltze. Officials said a conservation easement became necessary as the financial pressures for Stoltze to convert the land to other uses – identified as luxury home development – increased.

The company knocked almost $4 million off the preliminary $20.6 million appraised value of a conservation easement on the land.

The remaining $16.7 million would come from three sources.

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Missoulian