Defender of Open Space

By Matt Baldwin, Whitefish Pilot

Leslie Hunt was witness to the building boom of the early 2000s in Whitefish as acres of open land quickly transitioned to new subdivisions. Areas where she once hiked just outside of town were being threatened by constant proposals for development. It was a proposed plan by the state in 2003 to sell off land on Spencer Mountain that ultimately spurred Hunt to take notice and action.

Hunt, along with hundreds of other Whitefish residents, packed into a meeting room at Grouse Mountain Lodge to voice their concerns. As a result of that meeting, the Whitefish Neighborhood Plan and the A Trail Runs Through It Master Plan were born.

“That was the impetus for the Whitefish Trail as we know it,” Hunt told the Pilot during an interview at the Lion Mountain trailhead of the Whitefish Trail. “I’ve been involved since then.”

Earlier this year, Hunt was named chairwoman of the Whitefish Legacy Partners board, the advocate group for the Whitefish Trail that works to secure open space and recreation easements around Whitefish. Hunt moved here in 1993 from Massachusetts after spending a summer working at the Flathead Lake Biological Station in Yellow Bay. “I fell in love with Montana,” she said. She found employment at Montana Coffee Traders that year and has been with the company since as the manager of three cafes. “Somehow, I figured out how to make a career out of coffee,” Hunt said. She has two daughters, ages 8 and 11, with her husband, Will Hunt.

As an avid mountain biker, Hunt reflects on her early days in Whitefish and exploring the primitive trails just outside of town. “I used to bike all over Spencer Mountain, Lion Mountain and Haskill Basin,” she said. “Some of those open spaces we used to take for granted. When there was that big growth, we realized that unless there is action to preserve those areas, they may not be there anymore.” She’s amazed at how far along the Whitefish Trail has come in a decade of work. “We went from a meeting at Grouse Mountain to now having 30 miles of trail,” she said.

“We can’t take for granted our open space. Even in a place like Montana that has so much of it. As we get discovered more, those open spaces have more of a risk of being closed off to the public.”

As Legacy Partners chairwoman, Hunt has a few priorities she wants to tackle. Most notably, she wants to stabilize Legacy Partners’ finances for funding recreation easements, trail building and maintenance. She acknowledges that fundraising remains a constant challenge. “We wouldn’t be where we are now without the generosity of donors like Mike Goguen,” she said. “He gave us an amazing seed to get where we are. But now we need to rely on the rest of the community to keep us sustainable. We have good opportunities for every level of giving.”

She said the scale of trail building won’t be as grand in the coming years as it was for the first four or five years of the project. “For every mile of trail, we need money to maintain those trails,” she said. Still, she says it’s important to remain flexible and take advantage of opportunities as they come up.

Legacy Partners will make a big push this year to secure a recreation trail easement for Haskill Basin in concert with the 3,000-acre conservation easement that Trust for Public Land is developing with F.H. Stoltze Land and Lumber Co. The recreation easement will include a trailhead off Reservoir Road, a trail on the east side of the conservation easement and a trailhead off Big Mountain Road on Whitefish Mountain Resort property. Legacy Partners hopes to secure the recreation easement by the end of the year.

“We still have to take advantage of opportunities as they are presented to us,” Hunt said. “Timing is everything in life. If we have such an opportunity as Haskill that is on the horizon right now — we have to be involved in that.”

Former Legacy Partners board chairman Fred Jones offered Hunt some advice when she took over the position. “Fred told me to follow my gut, listen to what people have to say and make sure everyone on the board has a voice,” Hunt said. She says she’s comfortable with that role as a natural team player. “I like to collaborate and bounce ideas off people,” she said. “I hope I can continue the same trajectory that Fred and Diane Conradi and Lin Akey have all provided for this organization.”

To learn more about Whitefish Legacy Partners projects visit online at www.whitefishlegacy