updated 6/30/2008 8:37:47 PM ET 2008-07-01T00:37:47

Some of the most prized land in the northern Rocky Mountains is being protected from development in a conservation land deal hailed as the largest of its kind in U.S. history.

More than 300,000 acres of critical habitat for threatened and endangered animals, including grizzly bears and lynx, will be transferred to public ownership in a $500 million deal with Plum Creek Timber. A ceremony was held Monday in Montana to sign the agreement.

Plum Creek Timber is turning over about a quarter of its Montana holdings in a deal backed by the federal government, which is pitching in $250 million, said Sen. Max Baucus, a Democrat representing Montana.

Jamie Williams with The Nature Conservancy said the deal will be completed in three phases over the next three years. During that time, the conservation groups will be raising about $250 million to help pay for the land.

The land includes huge parcels in the scenic Swan Valley north of Missoula and near the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area. The Nature Conservancy and The Trust for Public Land said the land will be managed as a working forest, with places of harvestable timber.

The deal, equivalent to 500 square miles, spans a region known as the Crown of the Continent, a place environmentalists say is one of the most intact ecosystems remaining in the country.

In recent years Plum Creek has drawn the ire of environmentalists for selling off its land to private developers, sometimes turning forest into subdivisions. Critics have argued private owners were developing the land too quickly, closing off traditional access for locals and closing down logging.

The conservation groups said they will make sure the land remains open for recreation, from hunting to snowmobiling.

Timber harvested on the land will still feed lumber mills owned by Plum Creek for at least the next 15 years, according to the arrangement.

Seattle-based Plum Creek, the nation's largest owner of private land, has a total of 1.2 million acres in Montana.

"Plum Creek has a strong history of conservation and is pleased to partner in the sale of this important land to accommodate the public interest in its ecological, recreational and timber production values," said Rick Holley, president and chief executive officer.

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