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.  

BlackfootValley
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.”

CheckerboardMap
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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • CLIMATE EDUCATION AND STEWARDSHIP (CES) COMMUNICATIONS DESIGNER
    Seeking an individual to design and develop marketing and support materials for a 1-year, 30-hour per week, grant-funded climate education program. Based in Durango, CO....
  • WYOMING OUTDOOR COUNCIL OFFICE MANAGER - BOOKKEEPER
    The Wyoming Outdoor Council is seeking an office manager-bookkeeper to join our team. The office manager-bookkeeper supports the program and administrative functions of the Wyoming...
  • HEALTHY RIVERS SENIOR STAFF ATTORNEY
    WRA seeks a passionate attorney to join our Healthy Rivers team. The Senior Staff Attorney will research and advocate for wiser water management and updated...
  • CONSERVATIONIST? IRRIGABLE LAND?
    Stellar seed-saving NGO is available to serious partner. Package must include financial support. Details: http://seeds.ojaidigital.net.
  • CONSERVATIONIST? IRRIGABLE LAND?
    Stellar seed-saving NGO is available to serious partner. Package must include financial support. Details: http://seeds.ojaidigital.net.
  • PROGRAM MANAGER
    Applications will be reviewed on an ongoing basis and will be accepted until: February 03, 2020. Overview Conservation Voters for Idaho (CVI) protects Idaho's environment...
  • WRITING SKILLS TUTOR FOR HIRE!
    Fort Collins, CO college students welcome. Meet on your college campus!
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Colorado Plateau Natural & Human History Field Seminars. Lodge, river, hiking options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • REALTOR NEEDS A REMOTE ASSISTANT
    This is a business assistant position, The working hours are flexible and you can chose to work from anywhere of your choice, the pay is...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Central Oregon LandWatch is seeking an Executive Director to advance our mission and oversee the development of the organization. Job Description: The Executive Director oversees...
  • WESTERN NATIVE SEED
    Specializing in native seeds and seed mixes for western states.
  • MEDIA DIRECTOR
    Love working with the media? Shine a spotlight on passionate, bold activists fighting for wild lands, endangered species, wild rivers and protecting the climate.
  • STAFF ATTORNEY - NEVADA
    The Center for Biological Diversity is seeking an attorney to expand our litigation portfolio in Nevada. Come join our hard-hitting team as we fight for...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Montana Wildlife Federation seeks an energetic leader to advance our mission, sustain our operations, and grow our grassroots power. For a full position description,...
  • HISTORIC COMMERCIAL OPPORTUNITY IN DOWNTOWN NOGALES
    Nogales. 3 active lower spaces and upper floor with lots of potential. 520-245-9000 [email protected]
  • CHUCK BURR'S CULTUREQUAKE.COM BLOG
    Change will happen when we see a new way of living. Thinking to save the world.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • SPLIT CREEK RANCH
    Spectacular country home on 48 acres with Wallowa River running through it! 541-398-1148 www.RubyPeakRealty.com
  • OJO CALIENTE COMMERCIAL VENTURE
    Outstanding location near the world famous Ojo Caliente Mineral Spring Resort. Classic adobe Mercantile complete w/living quarters, separate 6 unit B&B, metal building and spacious...
  • EVERLAND MOUNTAIN RETREAT
    Everland Mountain Retreat includes 318 mountaintop acres with a 3,200 square foot lodge and two smaller homes. Endless vistas of the Appalachian mountains, open skies,...