“Legacy Partners aim to protect 2,000 acres for recreation access” Whitefish Pilot Article 3/20/2012

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Legacy Partners aim to protect 2,000 acres for recreation access

By HEIDI DESCH Whitefish Pilot

Whitefish Legacy Partners is rolling out a proposal to protect more than 2,000 acres of land for public use in areas surrounding the city and Whitefish Lake.

The project termed Whitefish Legacy Lands is an initiative to create permanent recreation access in the Beaver, Skyles and Spencer lakes areas and a trail linking Smith Lake to Big Mountain. WLP hopes to use a combination of public land transactions, including permanent easements and conservation land banking, as well as partnering with private landowners to protect recreation in these areas.

The group’s executive director, Diane Conradi, describes the plan as ambitious.

“We’re a legacy project,” Conradi said. “We’re looking at the legacy. We’re looking at what we leave behind for the kids.”

WLP is the organization that oversaw the development of the Whitefish Trail in collaboration with the city of Whitefish, state agencies and private landowners.

The new initiative is the next phase in a longtime goal to shape the future of state school trust lands around Whitefish as set out in the 2004 School Trust Lands Neighborhood Plan.

The legacy partners presented their current proposal to the state Land Board on Monday, March 19. The board will eventually have to approve the plan.

Mayor John Muhlfeld traveled to Helena on Monday to present the plan and returned with positive feedback.

“The meeting went very well and the land board was receptive,” Muhlfeld said. “We’re in a good position to move forward.”

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There are three major components to the Whitefish Legacy Lands project.

The cornerstone of the plan involves creating permanent recreation and conservation easement areas on state trust lands. The plan also includes trail development.

About 1,800 acres in three areas is proposed for protection. The first is for a 1,200-acre area surrounding Murray, Woods, North Beaver and Dollar lakes and adjacent to Beaver Lake. The second area is 280 acres northwest of Skyles Lake. The third is 350 acres south of Spencer Lake.

“It is permanently dedicating public access in key areas to make sure people have access to these lands forever,” Conradi said. “They will be free from development — residential and commercial.”

WLP expects to provide public access to those land areas through recreational easements. The city will hold those easements allowing for future public recreation. The plan is to connect trail systems that already exist in those areas. The state will continue to manage the timber on the lands with recreation use in-mind.

In the Beaverhead Lakes/Skyles areas the plan is to create a permanent public recreation area.

In the Spencer Mountain area the plan is to create a 10-year recreation zone, while planning for future recreation preservation in the area.

Hank Ricklefs, WLP board member, notes that protecting these lands is important because there is pressure on the state to sell the land for development.

“Sometimes you hear people say that these are state lands and why do we have to do anything?” Ricklefs said. “But it’s not going to stay that way. We want to make sure some of these areas have permanent, public access for recreation.”

The second piece of the project includes the potential purchase of 600 acres of state land east of Dollar Lake. Michael Goguen would like to purchase the land and would allow for a public trail to be constructed on the property.

The third component of the proposal involves land in the Swift Creek area.

The owner of Whitefish Lake Ranch is interested in a land exchange with the state. The owner would provide trail access through his property to the north of Smith Lake in exchange for purchasing 50 acres of land in the Swift Creek area currently owned by the state.

WLP’s goal is to have trail access to Big Mountain by 2014. They would like to eventually connect the Whitefish Trail to Taylor Creek and Whitefish Mountain Resort.

Through land banking, the school land trust can use the money from land sales to purchase land in other areas to continue funding the trust.

Conradi said the two private landowners are looking to assist with creating permanent access to the land.

“They will provide additional quality public access as part of their transaction,” she said. “They have agreed to donate to legacy partners to help acquire these other areas because they’re important.”

Conradi said WLP has tried to focus on preserving areas that seem to have the highest priority, being mindful of the group’s limited funding.

“This is an investment in the Beaver and Skyles area that is critically important,” she said.

The WLP has already constructed about 20 miles of trails. This plan is expected to result in new easements and new trail construction beginning in 2013.

Ricklefs pointed to the Whitefish Trail as a great positive in the community, but said it is time for the Legacy Partners to move forward.

“We feel it’s important to bring these together for a successful conclusion this year,” Ricklefs said. “The land board is receptive to a good proposal. We want to strike while the iron is hot.”

WLP will be looking for feedback on its proposal over the next several months.

A proposed timber sale in the Spencer Mountain area drew concerns from some over continued recreation use of the popular hiking and biking area. The timber sale is on hold, according to Conradi, and discussions continue about how to move the sale forward with recreation goals in mind.

“While the timber sale will have impacts and it will change recreation in Spencer,” she said, “there are some benefits including fire hazard and reduction management that really need to happen.”