Can a Montana community run its own forest?

Local citizens collaborate to restore, protect, and utilize Alvord Lake.

 

In the northwest corner of Montana, a coalition of partners recently turned a piece of lakeshore slated for subdivision into a new type of public forest. It exists largely because the U.S. Forest Service in 2012 launched a fund it calls the Community Forest and Open Spaces Program. The fund is vastly underutilized in the West, with more than two-thirds of its 35 recipients lying east of the Mississippi, but as development proliferates, Montana’s now-protected Alvord Lake offers a model more Westerners might consider adopting.

Alvord Lake, just north of the 957-person town of Troy, offers a transition zone for wildlife between the ridges above and the developed river valley below. Common loons nest along the lake during summer, while moose, deer and elk browse its conifer-lined shore during winter. It’s a popular spot for humans, too, with the Forest Service maintaining a 3-mile trail around the lake along with an outdoor classroom frequented by school and community groups. 

Alvord Lake Community Forest in Montana.
Vital Ground

All but one-third of a mile of the lake’s shoreline falls in Kootenai National Forest. The remaining parcel of 142 acres was long owned by Plum Creek Timber Co. At the turn of the millennium, the logging giant harvested it exhaustively, then sold it to Montana Mountain Valley, a real estate developer with big plans to subdivide.

The developer “had one thing and one thing only in mind,” said Troy resident Gary Jones. “To make money.”

Jones, his wife, Kathy, and other citizens had a different goal. After Forest Service representatives explained the proposed development at a community meeting in 2002, the Joneses formed Friends of Alvord Lake, LLC. Their dream was to find a way to keep the area as wild as possible. And they aligned their money with their environmental principles: They came up with the $800,000 necessary for the group’s eleventh-hour purchase of the parcel. As Jones put it afterward, “That land became our IRA.”

Buying the land was intended as a stopgap measure, but nothing happened for over a dozen years. The community favored a Forest Service purchase of the parcel, but found that federal funding was scarce. “I’d get calls from Gary every few years, saying things like, ‘The Forest Service doesn’t have any money, nothing’s happening,’ ” recalled Gael Bissell, a state wildlife biologist at the time. “He’s a patient soul.”

Patience would eventually collide with financial realty for the Joneses. With state and federal conservation possibilities exhausted, the couple faced the prospect of selling the land back to a developer. But that’s when Bissell learned that funding was available through the new Community Forest Program.

“When I looked it up, and it said public access, managed forest land, wildlife habitat, community support, education — it fit every criteria,” Bissell said. “It was a hit out of the park.”

The program requires that a local or tribal government, or a qualified land trust, manage the intended land, and that applicants prove local support of the project by securing at least half of its funding from non-federal sources. So Bissell approached the Vital Ground Foundation, a Missoula-based land trust focused on conserving and restoring grizzly bear habitat. She also teamed with U.S. Forest Service District Ranger Kirsten Kaiser to conduct a meeting to gauge local interest.

“The community reacted very favorably,” Kaiser recalled. “It’s a favorite place.” 

With Vital Ground signing on, the coalition recruited volunteers from the Society of American Foresters chapter in nearby Libby to inventory the parcel and write a forest management plan. Bissell also worked with the local conservation group Yaak Valley Forest Council to detail the parcel’s habitat value and its educational benefits as a demonstration forest.

The result was “a pretty technical application,” according to Bissell, and, in 2014, a $400,000 grant came from the Community Forest Program. More than a dozen other local, regional, and national donors joined the fundraising effort over the next year, and in December 2015, Vital Ground closed on the property. The Joneses’ conservation goal was achieved at last.

This July 8, the community christened its new forest with a free public celebration at the lake. One hundred visitors learned about the area’s natural history, the community forest model, and plans to restore and utilize the space.

“We have an opportunity to make it a much healthier forest,” said Ed Levert, chair of Libby’s chapter of the Society of American Foresters. With Alvord Lake providing a model of collaboration, community forests — created by a united group of people — could stave off development and become a growing source of pride across the West. 

Matt Hart is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He is a Wyss Conservation Scholar in the environmental studies graduate program at the University of Montana and an intern for the Vital Ground Foundation.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.