Few places on Earth are as untouched as the "Crown of the Continent" — a 10-million-acre expanse of mountains, valleys and prairies in Montana and Canada. The area has sustained all the same species — including grizzlies, lynx, moose and bull trout — for at least 200 years.
Now — in one of the most significant conservation sales in history — The Nature Conservancy and The Trust for Public Land have preserved 320,000 acres of forestlands in western Montana that provide valuable habitat for species in the Crown of the Continent.
"There hasn't been an animal extinction here since Lewis and Clark encountered it in the early 19th century," explains Kat Imhoff, the Conservancy's state director in Montana. "It's the only such ecosystem in the Lower 48 states."
The deal is part of the Conservancy’s large-scale efforts to protect forestlands around the world — the majority of which are working forests supplying sustainably harvested timber.
Over the past five years, the Conservancy has protected 3.5 million acres of forestlands — at a time when nearly one-half of Earth’s original forest cover is gone and global deforestation rates continue to rise.
'A Landmark Conservation Project' That Also Benefits People
The initiative — known as the Montana Legacy Project — helps more than nature. Crucial to the deal are its benefits to people, including:
- Maintaining the forests in sustainable timber management — keeping jobs in Montana and maintaining local businesses.
- Promoting continued public access to these lands for fishing, hiking and other recreational pursuits.
- Helping to curtail a growing trend nationwide — the conversion of timberlands into residential developments.
"This is a landmark conservation project that will benefit the environment and help to maintain strong local businesses," says Imhoff.
Stopping Habitat and Landscape Fragmentation
The land is being sold to the Conservancy and The Trust for Public Land by Plum Creek Timber Company, the largest private landowner in the United States and owner of 1.2 million acres of forestlands in Montana.
In recent years, a downturn in the timber industry has led companies such as Plum Creek and International Paper to divest their holdings and sell their land — much of which has been bought by developers and subdivided into smaller parcels, fragmenting large landscapes.
The lands covered in the agreement include multiple parcels spread across western Montana, primarily in Swan Valley and areas surrounding Missoula.
Together, these lands provide crucial pathways for wide-ranging animals such as grizzly bears and wolverines to feed, breed and rear their young. The area also includes some of the most popular recreation lands in the western United States.
Under the Montana Legacy Project, the purchased lands will be transferred into a mixture of private, state and federal ownership, allowing sustainable timber harvesting for Plum Creek for up to 15 years.
Conservation easements will restrict subdivision and home development on the vast majority of lands sold into private ownership. And maintaining public access for recreation will be a top priority. Neither the Conservancy nor The Trust for Public Land will retain long-term ownership of any lands.
The Farm Bill's Role
Funding for the $510 million purchase could come from several private and public sources—including a new Qualified Conservation Forestry Bonds program that was included in the recently passed federal Farm Bill.
The bonds were designed to help fund the purchase of ecologically important lands that are adjacent to existing U.S. Forest Service owned-lands. The purchased lands would eventually be conveyed to the Forest Service. Funding for the purchase is also being sought from other sources, including the state of Montana, private philanthropists and investors.
This would be the first forest-protection effort to receive these newly designated bonds, which were championed by U.S. Senator Max Baucus of Montana.
"This project is a once-in-a lifetime opportunity to protect these lands for our families and future generations," said Montana Senator Max Baucus, who helped facilitate the agreement.
"It will keep jobs in Montana, help maintain our communities and our working forests, and preserve public access for hunting and fishing. This will be the most significant land conservation project in the state's history, by far, and I'm proud to be part of it."