Montana: Flathead Land Trust

The Flathead River meanders through a 40-mile corridor after it leaves Glacier National Park. It winds south to Flathead Lake, the largest natural freshwater lake west of the Mississippi River.  It’s mostly on private land, and the land is under intense development pressure as an urban corridor emerges between Whitefish and Kalispell.  We met with Marilyn Wood, Executive Director of the Flathead Land Trust. She took us to a knoll overlooking the undeveloped north shore of the lake.  “This is an iconic Montana landscape,” she said.  “If we can’t save this, we ought to just pack up and go home.”

The Flathead Land Trust serves Flathead County, an area bigger than New Jersey.  Since 1985 it has protected nearly 10,000 acres, and last year the board decided to focus on saving the river.  Wood is getting to know the landowners along the corridor, including eight farm families that control the north shore of the lake. The Land Trust is also applying for grants and lobbying Governor Brian Schweitzer and Senator Max Baucus, both of whom are sympathetic.

“This is a very conservative place politically,” says Wood.  “We have been called ‘nature Nazis.’ A few years ago the state Nature Conservancy office had to close down for a week because of death threats.  But at the same time, I have never run into a place that captures people’s imagination the way this place does.  We’re talking about a significant chunk of change to get the job done, but it’s do-able.  We’re aiming for one-third private donations, one-third state money, and one-third Federal.”

Local people love the forests and farms along the river, and especially along the north shore of the lake, says Wood.  The drive to preserve the shore got going when two Whitefish developers proposed turning one of the farms into a 300-unit luxury housing development.   The Flathead Trust hired Wood a year ago; she is a long-time Montana resident who spent 13 years with the Nature Conservancy, and is well known in the state.  She immediately shifted the organization into high gear.  “Imagine three hundred homes in that field, with trees planted between the houses and the highway so you wouldn’t even know the water is there,” she said as she drove us around.  “The County Commissioners here are pro-development, but people came out of the woodwork to oppose this.”

The Commissioners turned down North Shore Ranch’s proposal in the spring; the developers are working on an appeal.  That setback and the soft real estate market gave the Land Trust an opening.  They have signed a purchase agreement to acquire a 160-acre farm on the North Shore for $1.9 million. The farm is adjacent to a state wildlife refuge.  Most of the money will come from a one-time state fund set up in 2007, and the Land Trust’s plan is to turn the farm over to the state.  “Flathead Lake generates about $10 billion a year for the state,” she says.  “We have a vision for the north shore that includes a state park, regional open space protection, and a bike trail. Governor Schweitzer and Senator Baucus embrace that vision. The County Commissioners don’t yet, but we’re working on them.”

There are indications that the public supports the vision, too.  Flathead County voters have approved a ballot referendum for November that would use property taxes to fund open space protection.  A poll found that 64 percent of voters would approve a $10 million bond, and 61 percent would approve $15 million.  “We have people behind us who are all the way from Obama Democrats to rock-ribbed Republicans,” said Wood.

I think the Flathead Trust ought to send the North Shore Ranch developers a box of cookies.  Wood says that the question of what to do about the river corridor has been hanging in the air for a long time. The development proposal called the question, just as it did in the Adirondacks, or in Canandaigua Lake, NY, or in hundreds of other places.  In the end, it comes down to whether or not the community has the will to protect its natural beauty.  Today things look good for the Flathead River.  Wood and her board are out there working like hay farmers who see rain clouds on the horizon. They’re conjuring up the community.

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bradedmondson

Writing about social change and how it happens.

5 thoughts on “Montana: Flathead Land Trust”

  1. I have just read the last four entries. Thanks so much for sharing the pictures, the stories and what you are learning from others. This is such an incredible experience for all of you. Hope Sara will write as I am still waiting to hear about this experience from her perspective. Your journey has inspired me. I have so much wanted to raise money for two different organizations that I support. One is called Foundation Fighting Blindness and the other is the American Association for the Deaf-Blind. I hope Joe and I will be able to sit down with you to talk more in depth about how you planned all of this. I have a dream of doing a similar trip but only on the motorcycle and raising money for causes that are my priority: especially finding a cure for retinal diseases.

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  2. Hi Jim, Sara and Brad,

    I miss the ride and companionship—it was a great adventure as promised. Thanks for adopting me, feeding me and for sharing Bill’s tent and equipment. I made it back to Atlanta safely and was happy to be reunited with my family. I took over 400 pictures during the 10 days I spent with you and am reliving the experience. Take care of each other; be strong and courageous. Paul

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  3. I have been reading of your journey sporadically these days as much of my time in invested in preserving the harvest bounty of peaches and tomatoes. The peaches are really the best NYS has had in many years I think. I have many comments but not the time to post them right now :) But wanted to share a technique that I used to help me survive the cold and snow in CO a few years back when traveling on the BMW motorcycle, I know this is not the same as the bike but when it is 30 degrees and you are flying at 60 miles an hour the wind chill makes it feel like 10 degrees. I learned to visualize myself in a hot tub with steaming hot water bubbling around me. It actually worked! It also helped that with each hour and the sun shining it got warmer!

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  4. Greetings! I work at Flathead Land Trust with Marilyn Wood and am having great fun reading about your adventures! I just wrote a short piece about your visit for our newsletter with a link to your blog and Finger Lakes site. Any chance I’d be able to get a higher resolution version of the picture of you and Marilyn above the North Shore of Flathead Lake to print with it?

    Stay dry and warm out there…

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