The Nature Conservancy has been involved in conserving the Blackfoot Valley from nearly the beginning. The first conservation easement in the state of Montana was signed between the Conservancy and a Blackfoot landowner in 1976. Easements have since become the primary tool for conservation in the valley. In 1998, the E Bar L Ranch donated a conservation easement to the Conservancy that protects 4,000 acres, half of the land in forest where the University of Montana School of Forestry conducts its forestry research program. Conservation easements, which guarantee future landowners will care for the land, now protect forty-plus river miles and more than 100,000 acres of the Blackfoot Valley.
Another example, in 2000, the Mannix Ranch sold a conservation easement on 1,100 acres along the river to the Fish and Wildlife Service. The easement purchase was funded by the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund and also by a grant to The Nature Conservancy from the Plum Creek Foundation, affiliated with the Plum Creek Timber Company, which merged with Weyerhaeuser in 2016 under the Weyerhaeuser name.
When the West was opened, the federal government gave land to mining companies to develop the land’s resources, as well as to railway companies to encourage construction of rail lines across the West. Several railroads with land grants merged into the Burlington Northern Railroad, which spun off its non-rail assets to Burlington Resources, which in turn spun off its land holdings to Plum Creek, an inheritance that had been granted to the original railroads. With huge profits from timbering on those acres, Plum Creek purchased more acreage, reaching eight million acres across the country including thousands of acres in Montana’s Blackfoot Valley.
In 2001, Plum Creek planned to sell mid-elevation lands in the valley. The company had converted to a real estate investment trust, which allowed the company to save on taxes. But also, as with many timber companies, they discovered that selling or developing their lands had become more profitable than timbering, or at least selling off their lands in the west and focusing timber operations in the east where tree production is double that of the west.
The Blackfoot Challenge, led by rancher and Board Chair, Jim Stone, came up with a plan to purchase 88,000 of those acres, land that would be resold with conservation easements in place to adjacent ranches to make their operations more viable or sold to the state or federal government to add to adjacent protected lands. The local communities, in fact, wanted some of the land to go into federal or state ownership to ensure public access and traditional uses, such as hunting and fishing. The goal was to maintain the valley’s tradition of ranching, forestry, wildlife, and public access. Stone at the time said, “We want to keep these lands intact for ranching and allow the ranchers to expand their operations, while still maintaining the important wildlife habitat.” A 2003 editorial in the Helena Independent Record called the effort “a role model of cooperation that should be copied throughout the West wherever people strive to preserve the land, its wildlife and their local values.”
The Nature Conservancy helped the effort by purchasing the land until it could be resold. As part of the project, a new Blackfoot Community Conservation Area was established totaling 41,000 acres on public and private land centered on Ovando Mountain overlooking the Blackfoot Valley. The Conservation Area provides for sustainable forestry, grazing, public access, and protection for elk migration routes and corridors used by grizzlies. Landowners in the Conservation Area include the U.S. Forest Service, the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, and private landowners.
In 2007, Plum Creek decided to take a bigger step in divestiture and agreed to sell an additional 310,000 acres to The Nature Conservancy and The Trust for Public Land as part of the Conservancy’s Montana Legacy Project. The acreage was in several parcels in western Montana, with 67,000 acres in the Swan River Valley, which shares a geologic trough with the Clearwater River tributary of the Blackfoot, further helping to preserve the watershed of the Blackfoot and its tributaries as well as wildlife populations. As before, the land is being resold into private ownership with conservation easements, as well as to state and federal agencies for public lands.
And finally, The Nature Conservancy purchased the remaining Plum Creek lands in the Blackfoot Valley in 2015—117,000 acres around Placid Lake and the Gold Creek drainage northeast of Missoula. Plum Creek had expressed an interest in development around Placid and Seeley Lakes in the watershed of the Clearwater River, but the company relented and offered the property to the Conservancy for protection. Since then, TNC has been gradually selling the land to become part of the Lolo National Forest. In January 2020, TNC announced that 16,400 acres was sold to the Forest Service with support from the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
Overall, TNC during the past 20 years has purchased 500,000 acres from Plum Creek Timber in the West, helping to heal what it calls a “checkered past.” In the 1800s when much of the west was divided up and given to railroads and mining companies or sold to homesteaders, each section was separated from the others by land that remained in federal ownership. Non-federal lands purchased by TNC and resold to the government, such as these Plum Creek lands, help in rejoining the landscape for seamless management and to preserve public access.