Our legs are burning. Not from the elevation gain but from an abundance of unkempt wild raspberries and devil’s club. Native hollyhocks line the banks of upper and lower Smith Creek, and male western tanagers are flashing and swooping by, hoping to impress potential mates. The MT School Trust land surrounding Smith Lake feels inherently pristine…so much so that we keep looking over our shoulders as our lead trail designer, Greg Gunderson, keeps shouting, “Hey bear!” Half the time, we’re startled by his salutation and acutely raise an eyebrow wondering if he is actually saying hi to a furry friend.
We are scouting the conservation potential of 480 acres of the thriving area surrounding Smith Lake. This land is sandwiched between residential development on Whitefish Lake and the steep, rugged slopes of the Whitefish Range. This area is clearly prime valuable land for development, and Whitefish Legacy Partners recognizes it as a high risk of sale in upcoming years. As we explore the banks of Smith Creek, it’s beauty and value is undeniable. A few giant larch trees have established deep roots that keep the rushing stream within its banks and ripe raspberries and huckleberries keep us continually distracted from the day’s mission. We fight our way through lush vegetation and pop out into a clearing within a stone’s throw of Smith Lake and within earshot of the creeks. We say to Greg, “Who wouldn’t want to build their private Montana dream house here?” Who knows, in 5, 10, or 25 years the DNRC could sell this parcel and transfer access and ownership from the public to the highest bidder. Luckily, however, the community has bigger plans to protect these lands in perpetuity.
Instead of a private 5,000 square foot home site with accompanying hot tub and grassy lawns, we envision an outdoor pavilion where local school groups can learn the value of water resources and wildlife protection. Instead of houses lining the shores of Smith Lake, we see grandfathers baiting hooks for giggling grandchildren, laying the building blocks for a lifetime in outdoor recreation. The community was successful permanently protecting 1,520 acres of MT School Trust land in Beaver Lakes, all the while generating $7.5 million for the public schools of Montana, and we are hopeful to have similar success protecting Smith Lake forever. Meaningful conservation is not a placeholder, hidden away in Roosevelt era history books. We have the opportunity to act now. We can
influence the future of our land base and create memories to span generations.