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Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks Regional Parks Manager Dave Landstrom speaks about the importance of a new land deal in the works near the north shore of Flathead Lake allowing for more protected waterfowl production areas and more open space for hiking and wildlife viewing. Garrett Cheen/Daily Inter Lake

Land trust to purchase large parcel of north shore land

The world of waterfowling, birdwatching and other recreation on the north shore of Flathead Lake is about to get bigger.

The Flathead Land Trust this week announced a purchase agreement for 160 acres of farmland adjacent to the federal Waterfowl Production Area at the head of the lake. The purchase from landowners Doug and Donna Miller involves plans for a state park under Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

Backers of the deal see it as a momentum builder that could lead to future "conservation solutions" for neighboring farmlands that face development pressures.

"This is real exciting to us because this is the first cornerstone piece to show (neighboring landowners) that we are walking the talk," said Marilyn Wood, executive director of the Flathead Land Trust.

The rectangular tract is now mostly covered in knee-deep alfalfa. It is bordered by one of the main access roads leading to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Waterfowl Production Area, a sliver of wetlands extending from Somers east to the mouth of Flathead River.

"This parcel of the Millers' can really serve as a viable park on its own," said Dave Landstrom, regional parks manager for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

The wetlands and farmland combine to provide rich habitat for pheasants, geese, ducks, swans, deer and other wildlife.

Landstrom said a small campground, covering no more than 25 acres, is envisioned for the north end of the tract, with the rest of the parcel providing an upland component to the federal wetlands on the lake's north shore, a popular destination for local waterfowl hunters.

It would be a set-up similar to a campground on Freezeout Lake near Choteau, where "you can walk from the campground to go bird hunting," Landstrom said.

The $1.9 million deal is set to be financed with $1.8 million from the state's Access Montana program, a $10 million fund that was approved by the 2007 Legislature. The balance of the funding will come from private contributions to the Land Trust, including grants from the Doris Duke Foundation and the Nature Conservancy.

"We were successful in lobbying for a piece of that Access Montana fund," Landstrom said. "And there are some big projects (elsewhere in the state) that we were in competition with."

Landstrom noted that the deal is not final. It must first go through a public review process under the Montana Environmental Policy Act and it must win approval from the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission and the state Land Board. Late fall is a "realistic date" for that to happen, he said.

From a high vantage point in Somers, Wood pointed out the sweeping farmlands that remain mostly undeveloped between the sliver of federal wetlands and Montana 83.

"This is the only place left on Flathead Lake that's still undeveloped," Wood said, adding that it's remarkable that about 1,600 acres is divided into relatively large tracts held by only nine landowners.

The Flathead Land Trust has been in contact with those landowners, she said, and most of them are interested in discussing ways to keep the land intact.

Acquiring the Miller tract was a demonstration that the trust was working to provide fair financial compensation, Wood said, because the landowners understandably cannot give away value in their property.

The trust has been looking under "every stone" for funding sources for future land or easement purchases and it will continue to do so, Wood said.

The wake-up call for the Flathead Land Trust's efforts was a proposed development involving 286 home lots on 364 acres. The North Shore Ranch subdivision was denied by the Flathead County commissioners in April, and the developers have since filed a lawsuit to have that decision reversed.

The commission's decision gave the trust time to negotiate for the Miller parcel acquisition and to build a campaign for a broader conservation vision, Wood said, noting that trust now has a variety of partners in the effort.

"A lot of people didn't get excited about it at first because they thought it was already protected," she said of the north shore farmlands. But now those lands have the attention of community leaders and partners including Flathead Audubon and sportsmen's groups such as the Flathead Chapter of Ducks Unlimited.

Tom Greiner, the local Ducks Unlimited chairman, applauded the Miller land deal.

"As Flathead County grows and develops, protecting our hunting rights, access and habitat will be more important for our economy and our way of life," he said.

For more information on the Flathead Land Trust online, look for:

http://www.flatheadlandtrust.org

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

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