State commission approves Haskill easement

The Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission on Thursday morning gave unanimous approval of a conservation easement for Haskill Basin that protects from development 3,020 acres of F.H. Stoltze Land and Lumber Co. property north of Whitefish.

“This will conserve an important piece of habitat used by a lot of different wildlife species,” said Ken McDonald, wildlife division administrator for FWP. “It’s also important for the city of Whitefish’s domestic water supply.”

The conservation easement is part of the South Whitefish Range Conservation Project, which also includes 7,150 acres of land along Trumbull Creek just northwest of Columbia Falls. The commission will consider the Trumbull Creek easement separately.

The State Land Board will have to approve both easements.

Both easements allow Stoltze to continue to manage and harvest trees from the forests, while maintaining public access and prohibiting residential development. FWP will hold both easements, and the city of Whitefish will jointly hold the Haskill Basin easement.

Mayor John Muhlfeld addressed the commission noting that the Haskill Basin easement is important to protecting the city’s drinking water supply. About 75 percent of the city’s water comes from creeks in Haskill Basin.

“For over 100 years, Stoltze has provided a neighborly agreement for city to access our water supply on little more than a hand shake,” he said. “This will provide protection to the city’s watershed, protect public access and allow for a public trail.”

The easements come with significant costs. The Haskill Basin easement will draw on a $7 million grant from the federal Forest Legacy Program, $2 million from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Habitat Conservation Plan land acquisition program and $7.7 million from the city of Whitefish. In addition, Stoltze has agreed to sell the easement at 75 percent of market value, a donation of $3.9 million. The total cost is $16.7 million.

The Trumbull Creek easement is a $9.5 million deal, with $6.5 million from the Forest Legacy program, $2 million from the Habitat Conservation Plan program and $1 million from private donations.