Landscape-scale conservation gains ground

The Nature Conservancy just announced its largest Washington land purchase to date.


As the largest fires in Washington’s history consumed over 350,000 acres of forests last summer, the flames also lapped onto land the Nature Conservancy was considering for its largest-ever land purchase in the state. The conflagrations confirmed that they were making a sound decision. “We expect the frequency and intensity of fires to only increase, and we’ve seen such a tremendous shift in our fire regime in Washington, that we know we need to be motivated to find solutions,” says James Schroeder, the organization’s conservation director in eastern Washington.

Part of that solution coalesced late last month when the Conservancy announced its $134 million deal to buy 47,921 of Plum Creek Timber Company land in Washington’s Yakima River headwaters — an area the size of Tacoma — plus 117,152 acres in Western Montana’s Lower Blackfoot River Watershed. The purchase unites entire watersheds that have been under fractured ownership for generations. Having a cohesive plan for those lands will make it easier to do forest thinning or prescribed burns on a scale that could stave off catastrophic wildfires, for example. It should also make managing ecosystems to sustain at-risk species like spotted owls, grizzly bears or lynx less challenging.  

A view over the Clearwater River and into land the Nature Conservancy is purchasing in Western Montana. Photo courtesy of The Nature Conservancy, by Steven Gnam
In addition to improving management options, the purchase marks a new era for those forests and the communities around them. The Plum Creek lands complicate management because they are interspersed with National Forest in a checkerboard pattern that formed in the 1860s, when Congress granted the railroads every other square mile section near their rail lines. As the checkerboard became more valuable to Plum Creek for real estate in the late 1990s and early 2000s, conservationists and communities grew nervous about losing forest access and being overrun with development. Groups like the Blackfoot Challenge and the Trust for Public Land in Montana, and the Nature Conservancy in both states, began buying the checkerboard to conserve it.

The recent deal was the final one needed to resolve 150 years of splintered ownership in Montana’s Blackfoot Valley. Now the Conservancy and its partners other NGOs, community groups, the state and the Forest Service can continue to look at common management goals. “We’ll be working on this for years,” says Chris Bryant, the Nature Conservancy’s land protection specialist for Western Montana. “This is a big piece of ground so it’s a slow, ongoing, almost glacial process.” Maintaining public access and biodiversity, and restoring logged parcels will be key to future plans. 

The recent deal was the final purchase needed to resolve 150 years of splintered ownership in Montana’s Blackfoot Valley.

In Washington, especially, the Conservancy is also interested in trying different ways to thin forests for restoration, while selling timber when possible. That could help finance other restoration projections that don’t produce commercial timber. One way of doing that might be to create gaps in a former tree farm to emulate a more wild forest, while harvesting timber in the process. “For us this (purchase) is really a game changer,” says Schroeder. “A big piece of what we want to do is show that we can implement some science-based restoration on this landscape that could influence how national forests could be managed in the future.”

One benefit of the parcels' massive scale is that the Conservancy can act as a kind of test bed for ideas that are often too risky or cumbersome for the Forest Service, such as trying new techniques for making entire watersheds more resilient to climate change and fire.

The Conservancy’s latest big purchase ultimately signifies a move toward more landscape-scale thinking. For example, as much as the spotted owl has driven conservation in Washington’s forests, the traditional conservation idea of simply setting aside old-growth reserves isn’t enough. “If fire comes through and wipes out those reserves, the spotted owl is left with nothing. So if we can’t make the forests more resilient to fire and restore more habitat, then ultimately we will lose,” says Schroeder. “In changing climates, it’s not enough to have a small amount of land locked away. You need to figure out how to have enough flexibility on the land so that species can persist and move to different places and find suitable habitats. That’s an evolution in our way of thinking about conservation.”

Congress granted the railroads every other section of land near their rail lines in 1862. Now conservationists are trying to protect and reunite that land. Dark brown on the map indicates the Nature Conservancy's latest big purchase.

Sarah Jane Keller is a correspondent for High Country News. She writes from Bozeman, Montana and tweets @sjanekeller.

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