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.