Keeping Pace with Growth

Almost everyone in Whitefish agrees that conservation and public recreation are good for locals

Over a dozen years ago the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, under Gov. Judy Martz’s administration, came to Whitefish pushing plans on the state’s public forestlands surrounding the lake and town.

Whitefish, led by former mayor Andy Feury, stepped up and said that there’s a better, more community-oriented solution. A lot of locals agreed with Feury, including Whitefish rancher and then governor candidate Brian Schweitzer.

Schweitzer, who later served eight years as governor, did much good in Whitefish working with people like Feury as mayor.
A decade ago, many people like former Sen. Dan Weinberg and myself spent years working state officials and the Legislature to gain rights to conserve the public forestlands around Whitefish.

The state land board is the governor, superintendent of public education, auditor, secretary of state, and attorney general. It adopted the community-driven conservation plan for the public forestlands surrounding Whitefish.

That was a while ago. Today there’s years worth of public land conservation ahead. Dozens of trailheads and 35 miles of managed trails await a loop around the lake. Most are permanent trails, which people in our community or grants paid to build and manage.

There are thousands of public acres of permanent conservation in the Beaver Lake area, which hundreds of locals paid to protect. It’s returned the state land board millions in new revenues.

Interconnected within the public trails, trailheads and permanently development-free forestland are lakes like Murray, Rainbow, Woods, Dollar, Boyle, Little Beaver and Beaver.

When Whitefish voters chose to increase their sales tax on mainly luxury items by 50 percent, from 2 percent to 3 percent, they did it big-time. Eighty-four percent of Whitefish voters opted to permanently protect 3,000 plus acres of private forestlands on the other side of the lake, in Haskill Basin.

That’s great news for forestry, property taxpayers, and people who just love the outdoors. Haskill is the primary municipal drinking watershed and protecting these lands made sense.

That means six new miles of managed trail, two new trailheads, and new winter access. All this plus more as private donations pay for recreational improvement in the Haskill area over the upcoming year.

Protecting the water quality flowing into Whitefish Lake seems a big objective in protecting the private and public forestlands encompassing Swift Creek. The Swift Creek Trailhead offers public access to Smith Lake, a rebuilt fish hatchery.

Public places like Spencer Mountain still don’t enjoy a permanent conservation solution. These forestlands are managed by DNRC and Whitefish holds a short-term land use license for public recreation like biking and hiking. South Spencer and Twin Bridges trailheads offer good public access.

The Whitefish area trails encourages hundreds of local school kids to get outdoors and learn about their state public lands, held in trust for all Montanans to benefit education. There are numerous youth programs, guided hikes, and learning opportunities at the Lion Mountain pavilion.

Newly elected councilor Katie Williams was appointed by fellow members to serve on the Whitefish Legacy Lands Committee. In his closing remarks at the year’s first session, councilor Feury said to Williams that pledging four years of one’s life to public service can be very rewarding and hopefully she’d do it for another four after this term.

That’s good advice. Big stuff like public trails and conservation take time, yet last forever. It’s been a dozen plus years since DNRC sparked the state land board’s community-driven conservation plan.

Almost everyone in Whitefish agrees that conservation and public recreation are good for locals, the economy, and statewide education. Over the decades Whitefish has grown much faster than most places in Montana, yet managed to do a good job keeping many of the area lakes easily accessible and forestlands productive and open to the public.