Our new Whitefish Pilot Column: “Places Worth Protecting” 6/26/2012

Here is our FIRST of a new column series appearing every other week in the Whitefish Pilot. Click here to read the article in the Whitefish Pilot online.

Support Legacy Lands by Becoming a ‘Trail Friend’

It’s hard to believe that nine years have passed since I started working on public outreach and planning projects with Whitefish Legacy Partners, the nonprofit, community-driven organization that brought us the Whitefish Trail. 2012 presents more opportunities than ever before for conservation, recreation and trail building. I am excited to reach out to Pilot readers with news from the Whitefish Legacy Partners about these special places worth protecting.

Some of you may remember the first Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) public meeting years ago — May 12, 2003 — when the room at Grouse Mountain Lodge was overflowing into the hallways and the DNRC was sharing their plans to sell off some of the 13,000 acres of state lands around Whitefish to increase revenue for the school trusts. It seemed our community had been taking these lands for granted for decades, walking our dogs, riding our bikes, fishing and camping, without really knowing their purpose. The overfilled room represented people with diverse interests, but the common thread was to conserve these lands for public access.

 

It really all started with the Enabling Act, when in 1889 the U.S. Congress admitted the State of Montana as the 41st state, and set aside almost 6 million acres of land for common school support, roughly in sections 16 and 36 of every township with the state. Many western states received the same designations from congress, but most have sold off these lands.

Montana is unique in the fact that more than 90 percent of lands granted at statehood are still in public ownership, and have been generating revenue from traditional natural resources such as agriculture, grazing, mining and timber harvest, for over a century. The goal of Montana’s Land Board and the DNRC, as the state “property managers” is to manage the State of Montana’s Trust Land resources to produce revenues for the Trust beneficiaries (Montana Schools) while considering environmental factors and protecting the future income-generating capacity of the land.

We have come a long way since the Enabling Act and that first public meeting in Whitefish. We now have a Whitefish School Trust Lands Neighborhood Plan, a Whitefish Trail master plan, and 19 miles of the Whitefish Trail on the ground. The Whitefish Trail is made possible through a collaborative effort with Whitefish Legacy Partners, City of Whitefish, Montana DNRC, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, Flathead County, U.S. Forest Service, Flathead Land Trust, private landowners, and many local volunteers. The strength of these partnerships has proven successful and will be essential for the current initiative, the Whitefish Legacy Lands.

The Whitefish Legacy Lands 2012 goals are lofty, with the establishment of public recreation and conservation areas in the Spencer, Beaver and Skyles areas totaling 2,500 acres, including the private “land banking” transaction of 580 acres in the Beaver Lakes area with a conservation easement, deed restriction and public trail. This will result in more trails, as well as more view shed, watershed, and wildlife protection, and ultimately more money for Montana’s schools and universities, than ever before.

Thankfully the Goguen Family, who significantly helped establish the Whitefish Trail, is back at the table with a crux move for these current transactions, again offering trail easements, trail building and millions of dollars in donations.

We invite you to support these efforts by becoming a “Whitefish Trail Friend.” You can learn more and sign up at whitefishlegacy.org. Happy trails!

–Lisa Jones