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Vital Ground Receives $400,000 Grant to Establish Community Forest

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The Vital Ground Foundation is the recipient of a $400,000 grant from the U.S. Forest Service to protect 142 acres of forested land in the northwest corner of Montana near Troy.
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Missoula, Mont. – The Vital Ground Foundation is the recipient of a $400,000 grant from the U.S. Forest Service to protect 142 acres of forested land in the northwest corner of Montana near Troy. Partners contributing to the Alvord Lake Community Forest Project include Friends of Alvord Lake, U.S. Forest Service (Kootenai National Forest), Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks, Montana Dept. of Natural Resources and Conservation, Society of American Foresters (Libby Chapter), Yaak Valley Forest Council, Troy School District, and Montana Loon Society.
The property, which contains one-third mile of shoreline and is the only private holding on Alvord Lake, was purchased by a developer in 2002 and public access was temporarily eliminated. Development of the parcel would have threatened sensitive loon nesting sites, compromised important winter range for ungulates, and likely would have permanently cut off a trail circumnavigating the lake, which will now remain open to the public.
Fortunately, with significant public support, the Friends of Alvord Lake acquired the parcel in 2003, agreeing to hold it temporarily until collaborators could provide for its permanent protection. During the next ten years, the Friends of Alvord Lake, Kootenai National Forest and members of the Troy community worked diligently to find a long term solution without avail.
Then, in 2013, Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks and the Libby Chapter of the Society of American Foresters contacted Vital Ground about the U.S. Forest Service Community Forest and Open Space Conservation Program, which originates from the Land and Water Conservation Fund. The program requires either a local or tribal governmental entity or a qualified land trust to secure funding to establish community forests that provide continuing and accessible community benefits. If the project partners are successful in raising the remaining funding necessary to compliment the cornerstone funding from the Community Forest Program, the entirety of Alvord Lake will remain available for myriad public uses.
“The land acquisition would maintain recreational opportunities such as fishing, hiking, and hunting.” says Kirsten Kaiser, District Ranger for the Three Rivers Ranger District, which is headquartered in Troy. “It will also help conserve wildlife habitat and expand opportunities for public education and vegetation management ‒ including fuels management in the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI).”
As the qualified nonprofit acquiring the property, Vital Ground will manage it in partnership with a local stakeholder’s group that collaborated to produce a detailed Community Forest Management Plan to guide stewardship, public access, and protection of the property’s conservation values.
“As the Alvord Lake Community Forest begins to take shape, SAF will collaborate with the public, volunteers, and other partners in providing professional expertise on proposed forest management activities, interpretation and signing that may be used in conservation education, as well as be an active participant in the advisory council,” said Russ Gautreaux, member of the Libby SAF Chapter and a co-author of the proposed management plan for the parcel.
The project will cost nearly $1.15 million, and is being facilitated by a substantial donation from the Friends of Alvord Lake in the form of a bargain sale to Vital Ground. In addition to the $400,000 U.S. Forest Service grant, funding has also been committed by the Montana Fish & Wildlife Conservation Trust and the Cinnabar Foundation.
The property provides habitat for many resident and transient wildlife species, including grizzly bear, wolves, black bears, mountain lions, whitetail and mule deer, elk, moose, Merriam’s turkey, and bobcat. The area lies within known fisher habitat and potentially within wolverine. The west and south slopes of the property provide important winter range for a variety of big game species including elk, deer and moose, and Alvord Lake is an important nesting site for common loons.
“In addition to protecting a great piece of wildlife habitat, this project maintains the current values that the community most appreciates about the area,” says Tonya Chilton, area wildlife biologist for MFWP. “The project will also expand outdoors education opportunities for students, and will provide a collaborative arena for members of the stakeholder committee and other adults to engage in forest stewardship activities and practices.”
Vital Ground works cooperatively with landowners, local communities, and state and federal agencies, and addresses habitat fragmentation by permanently protecting lands crucial to the survival of grizzly bears and other wide-ranging wildlife.
“The Alvord Lake project is a great example of the balance that can be attained between protecting sensitive wildlife habitat and maintaining traditional, productive uses of large, rural private parcels.” says Ryan Lutey, Vital Ground’s Director of Lands. “The property will stay in private ownership and continue to contribute to the local tax base, remain productive from a forest resources perspective, and provide public access to an important recreational area ‒ while at the same time benefiting grizzlies in an ecosystem where every opportunity to minimize conflicts between bears and humans makes a significant difference.”
Vital Ground will be seeking an additional $350,000 to complete the sale by the end of 2015. Individuals, local governments, and other organizations are invited to contribute.
For more information, contact The Vital Ground Foundation, 20 Fort Missoula Rd., Missoula MT 59804; 406-549-8650. www.VitalGround.org.
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