Montana’s Conservation Easements Are Effective for Managing Forests, Public Access

By Charlie Decker

Having lived 80 years in northwestern Montana, I’ve seen a lot of change. But two things I think should remain long into the future are active timber management and public access for hunting and fishing.

That’s why I’m glad – nearly 30 years later – for the conservation easement that has provided for public access and active forest management on 142,000 acres of the Thompson-Fisher River. The Montana Legislature should make sure these kinds of solutions remain on the table for our timber economy and our way of life.

From 1992-2000, I sat on the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission when we took on the Thompson-Fisher project. Conservation easements were relatively new and gave some folks some heartburn.

In fact, conservation easements are a really good tool, particularly for the timber industry and hunting access. That’s as true today as it was when we created the Thompson-Fisher Conservation Easement in 1995, or when I helped found the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation in 1984.

The rumors that flew around the Thompson-Fisher River easement have been proven false over time. Some folks feared they would be locked out. As the owner-operator of a logging company who has worked in just about every side drainage of the Thompson-Fisher, that was the last thing I wanted.

Today, people still hunt, fish and camp in the Thompson-Fisher. Timber harvest still takes place. The land looks pretty good. It looks a lot better than it would if you had homes and ranchettes lining up the Thompson Valley.

Any outdoorsmen or women in western Montana over the past 20 or so years has experienced favorite places lost behind ‘no trespassing’ signs. About a half-million acres of timber land has changed hands. Too much of it has been taken out of the timber base.

Programs like the Forest Legacy and Habitat Montana do more than protect public access. They increase opportunities for active management, providing wood for homes and jobs for families, and managing to keep water clean and minimizing fire risk.

Conservation easements are a choice landowners have under their private property rights. They are not the same as preservation. Conservation easements are about using what the Good Lord has put on this Earth, but taking care of it. Not locking it up, but using it wisely in perpetuity.

When we started the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, we understood that development pressure was targeting critical elk winter range across the West. Now the foundation has hundreds of easements protecting winter range and migration routes and keeping management options open.

Kyle Weaver, current CEO and President of the foundation, recently wrote: “Voluntary conservation agreements don’t just help elk… they benefit everything from mule deer to songbirds. And for those of us who are lucky enough to own a piece of elk country and want to leave a conservation legacy, there is no more powerful tool.”

Conservation easements have become a lot more popular over the recent decades – and for good reason.

Today, nearly every timberland owning company in western Montana has conservation easements as part of their business plan. This includes Stoltze, Stimson, Green Diamond, and many small private woodland owners.

We are very fortunate in this part of the country. We still have it pretty good. However, managed forests and good access are privileges we should not take for granted.

In states like Colorado, the timber industry has dried up entirely. There are no mills left in operation. As a result, there are no loggers or infrastructure remaining to manage the forests. Managers and property owners are left without the tools they need to manage challenges like bark beetle outbreaks, forest pests, and wildfire hazards.

In Montana, conservation easements are one tool we have to stay in control of our own future. Our lawmakers in Helena should make sure this tool remains strong and well-funded. That will be another legacy people will be thankful for long after we are gone.

Charlie Decker is the owner of CRD Timber and Logging Co. in Libby. He is the co-founder of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and a former Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Commissioner.

TimberWest November/December 2013
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