Flathead Land Trust celebrates 25 years

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Flathead Land Trust photo illustration The Flathead Land Trust celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. Since its incorporation in 1985, the trust has executed 51 projects, providing protections for 12,000 acres.

Think of the Blasdel federal Waterfowl Production Area, or the new McWenneger Slough fishing access, or a 40-acre addition to Lone Pine State Park, or better yet, many of the farm fields and riparian areas along the lower Flathead River system. They have something in common: the Flathead Land Trust.

The organization is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, along with an impressive track record in conservation projects that have protected recreation and open spaces in the Flathead Valley since the trust's inception.

Marilyn Wood, the trust's executive director, said she encounters people who have "no idea that the Flathead Land Trust was involved with this project or that project. That's one of the things we've been trying to do, is to get out how important the Flathead Land Trust has been to the community ... I think it's time to give credit where credit is due."

And Wood is not talking about herself; she's talking about scores of volunteers and staffers who have been involved with the organization over time, cooperating partners, and of course, the landowners who have participated in conservation projects.

"They are by far the most important puzzle piece in private land conservation, the landowners who make this choice," Wood said.

Participating landowners have had remarkably diverse backgrounds - a marathon runner, a screenwriter, farmers, a psychiatrist, even a rock bank roadie, to cite a few - but they have had common interests.

"What they have in common is their love for their particular property and their desire to see it maintained pretty much as is for the future," Wood said.

Many landowners have strongly wanted to see continued traditional uses, such as forest management and farming, to continue on their lands rather than subdivision and development.

A 25th anniversary dinner was held at Rebecca Farm last weekend, to tell the story of how the trust and its conservation efforts have evolved.

And it has been an evolution, indeed.

Mike Conner recalls working for the Flathead National Forest and implementing the 1976 Wild and Scenic River designation for parts of the Flathead River system. In the years that followed, the Forest Service acquired "scenic easements" from landowners to protect aesthetics along designated sections of the North, Middle and South forks of the Flathead from development.

But the federal money for those easements ran out around 1981, Conner said, and the Forest Service set out to consider other options.

Meanwhile, the Flathead Conservation District was considering ways to help keep farmlands intact in the face of inheritance tax conditions "that were quite severe at that time," Conner recalls.

The Seattle-based Trust for Public Land was also promoting the creation of local land trusts to implement conservation easements as a means for landowners to lighten the burden of inheritance taxes.

"Land trusts were not something that were a household name back then," Conner said. "Most of them were on the East Coast. There were only a few in the Rocky Mountains. The closest one was in Jackson Hole, established in 1980."

A meeting was held in Kalispell for the public to get involved with a land trust in 1983, and about 100 people showed up, many of them farmers. From that a steering committee was formed that included Conner, a Realtor, a North Fork resident, a lumber yard manager, an accountant, an attorney, a journalist, a farmer and a corporate manager.

The Flathead Land Trust was incorporated in 1985, with its volunteers meeting at local restaurants and working out of a room at the downtown train depot building.

"For about 10 years we worked out of a shoe box. That is the honest-to-God truth," Conner said.

The volunteers teamed up with the Trust for Public Land for their project in 1987, doing most of the groundwork and negotiations that led to the purchase of agricultural land south of Kalispell that has since been transferred to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as the Blasdel Waterfowl Production Area, a popular destination for hunters and bird watchers.

Projects that followed involved conservation easements, mostly on waterfront and agricultural lands.

"We were going through an education process when we were sitting down with landowners and visiting with them," Conner said. "That evolved over time ... I am just absolutely excited about what has happened. Early on, you didn't know where things were going."

This is how things went: over the past 25 years, the Flathead Land Trust has executed 51 projects, providing protections for 12,000 acres.

"It's typical for folks in land trusts to talk about acres, but it's important to talk about the values and the people involved," Wood said. "This organization has a long history and it's done some pretty amazing conservation projects."

In the 1990s, the trust transitioned from a solely volunteer organization to one with paid staff, and it has since gained momentum in its efforts in pursuing a variety of projects. One type are those involving cooperative entities and agencies, such as the fishing access at McWenneger Slough.

The land was donated to the Flathead Land Trust, which in turn worked with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks in planning and developing the site.

Other examples are helping out with a Whitefish-area trails project and transferring land to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks for a 40-acre expansion of Lone Pine State Park west of Kalispell.

But most have involved conservation easements on private lands to curb subdivision and development in favor of traditional uses, as the landowners wish. And over 25 years, the trust has worked with many people.

"It was really surprising how many folks turned out, considering the weather, even more folks than we expected," Wood said of last week's anniversary celebration. "We had more than 200 people there."

"We've had some wonderful people who walked through the door and put their elbows into this with certain skills," Conner said. "It was really interesting to see the evolution of this as it continued to grow."

Reporter Jim Mann may be reached at 758-4407 or by e-mail at jmann@dailyinterlake.com.


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