Ryan Zinke's visit back to his childhood home a year ago gave the Navy SEAL commander the idea of obtaining an old gravel pit near the Whitefish Cemetery for a recreation area.
"The site is where neighborhood children once sledded down hills and built forts in the summer," he recalled.
Now retired and living in Whitefish, Zinke saw his dream realized recently after a year of work involving many members of the community. BNSF Railway donated the land for the Great Northern Veterans Peace Park.
BNSF spokesman Gus Melonas said railroad officials signed the deed to 4.892 acres on Jan. 23.
"This is an outstanding opportunity to protect open space and provide an area that can be utilized and enjoyed by all members of the community," Melonas said.
A map provided by the railroad shows the parcel bordered by Ramsey Avenue and Birch Point Drive on its west end. Railroad tracks run a short distance beyond the south boundary. The land was valued at $275,000.
Zinke, president of a nonprofit foundation formed to create the park, called the land donation "a gracious and generous gift." Other members of the board include Petty Officer 2nd Class Jennifer Detlefsen, Tim Grattan, Dr. John S. Petersen and Douglas Schuch.
Zinke said many others worked on the project.
"It was hundreds of hours of grass-roots efforts," he said.
According to Zinke, Great Northern Veterans Peace Park evolved into a concept different from the more familiar "hallowed ground" veterans memorial reserves.
"The theme of this park is to celebrate life - why veterans fight," he said.
Plans call for installing flags for all the armed forces along with a historic plaque describing the contributions of veterans and the railroad to the community of Whitefish. The board intends to seek contributions to develop the park.
So far, F& H Surveying and Frazier Appraisal Service donated the survey and appraisal needed to obtain the land and the law firm of Morrison and Frampton prepared documents to form the nonprofit group.
"There are zero taxpayer dollars in this," Zinke said.
Plans call for dedicating the park in September followed by an opening for sledding next winter. Volunteers need to groom the slopes and install 600 feet of security fencing before allowing the public to use the area.
For Zinke, the land donation represents a happy solution to a sad reality he found when he set out to take his two young sons sledding last January. Whitefish was not the same town he left 23 years ago for a career in the Navy.
"Everyone's building fences," he said. "It's hard for kids to find a place to go sledding."
After discovering his old neighborhood play area still undeveloped, he began a mission to secure the open space for the public. Zinke envisioned that the gentle slopes with a bowl as a great setup not just for sledding but also concerts in the summer.
With its view of Big Mountain and Whitefish Lake, the site stuck him as also ideal for a veterans park. Eventually, the park vision embraced the concept honoring veterans, the railroad and family fun in Whitefish.
Zinke said his wife suggested creating a peace park.
"This has something for everyone," he said.
In his final months as a Navy commander, Zinke pursued contacts on behalf of the park with former Gov. Mark Racicot, a board member of BNSF, then the Staubach Co., owned by football legend Roger Staubach.
Staubach Co. works in land acquisition for the railroad, Zinke said.
"Staubach went to the Naval Academy and I went in my uniform," he said with a laugh.
The Staubach Co. contact resulted in a promise of a phone call from a higher-up in the railroad. Zinke was stunned when the call came from Matt Rose, chief executive officer.
Following Rose's instructions, he obtained the appraisal of $275,000 for the land and the survey. Eventually, the railroad approved the donation.
Zinke said no one ever said no to him, although some were slow to say yes.
"It's nice to be associated with a community where, if you do things for the right reason, people respond," he said.
Reporter Candace Chase may be reached at 758-4436 or by e-mail at email@example.com.