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Trail easement gets unanimous support from city
By MATT BALDWIN Whitefish Pilot
In a vote that is being lauded as a historic moment for Whitefish land conservation, city council on Nov. 5 unanimously approved a deed of public recreation use easement that creates permanent public access to state lands around Whitefish Lake and to the Whitefish Trail.
“I’m honored and humbled to be able to vote for this,” councilor Richard Hildner said as his voice cracked with emotion. “I’m proud to vote for this.”
Still subject to approval by the Montana Land Board, the deed will secure and protect 1,500 acres of state trust land in the Beaver and Skyles lakes area. A trail easement allows two-miles of the trail to pass through Two Bear property, owned by philanthropist Michael Goguen who donated $3 million to the trail project in 2008.
The state land board will review the proposal Nov. 19.
The deed is to be held by the city to secure the trail corridor and trail improvements.
Part of the transaction includes purchasing development rights of school trust land. The state land board recently approved appraisals for the land at full market value, which all together will total about $7 million.
There are no financial requirements by the city as Whitefish Legacy Partners is working to raise money for purchase of the easement.
A portion of Goguen’s 2008 donation, plus $1 million the group is raising will go to the purchase price. Goguen has said he is willing to put in more money to reach the $7 million mark.
The Department of Natural Resources and Conservation will continue traditional revenue generation on the school trust land through harvesting timber and leases.
ONE BY ONE, trail supporters stepped to the podium in front of council on Monday to voice their support for the conservation easements, often using phrases like “lasting legacy” as they described the decade-long effort to protect the state land and build the trail.
“This is possibly one of the biggest things we can do for this community and their children, and their children,” Lin Akey told city council.
Akey touted the suite of transactions as a plan that protects viewsheds and public access while still providing revenue for education as required on school trust lands.
Ron Brunk, owner of Glacier Cyclery, praised the trail as benefiting both recreationists and local businesses.
“The trail is a huge asset to all business owners,” he said. “As people come here to ride the trail, they’re staying at hotels and eating at restaurants.”
Sportsman Ski Haus chief executive and Legacy Partners fundraising chair Mike Gwiazdon agreed the trail will boost the local economy.
“Response at the store has been spectacular,” he said. “People say it’s the best trail they’ve used, the product is sensation. It will set this community apart from all others in the West.”
Currently more than 20 miles of trail has been constructed. Plans show a 55-mile long trail that eventually goes around Whitefish Lake and up Big Mountain.
Legacy Partners board member Diane Conradi commended those who have worked with the DNRC and private landowners to make the conservation and recreation easements reality, noting that it all started with the 2003 Whitefish Neighborhood Plan. The plan was approved by the city in 2005.
“It shows that longevity and commitment is worthwhile,” she said. “Once the dream turns into a plan, and the plan turns into a trail, it’s a pretty amazing thing.”
Former state representative of Whitefish House District 4 Mike Jopek compared the conservation easement to City Beach.
“Beaver and Skyles lakes are places you take your kids to go swimming,” he said. “When we look back, people will say this was pretty special. Thank goodness someone had foresight to set aside City Beach.”
Local travel photographer Chuck Haney joined others in praising the trail as a community asset.
“Our trail system rivals anything in the country,” he said.
Erin Bodman, the president of the local mountain bike group Flathead Fat Tires, said the trail is talked about in the biking community statewide.
“Mountain bikers are eager and excited about the trail,” she said.
Bodman noted that as a bike patroller on the trail she often sees cars parked at the trailhead with licenses plates from out of the area.
Citizens for a Better Flathead executive director Mayre Flowers commended the Legacy Partners on their vision, calling the easement a model for economic development for other communities to follow.
Upon motioning to approve the deed, councilor Bill Kahle noted the overwhelming support.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much unanimous support for anything,” Kahle said.
Chris Hyatt said he uses the trail with his kids and agrees its an economic driver for the area.
John Anderson commended the efforts behind the transactions.
“None of this gets done without the will of the community,” he said.