Flathead commissioner accused of damaging trees at county park

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Flathead County Commissioner Phil Mitchell takes notes at a meeting on Monday, Dec. 29, 2014 in Kalispell. (Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)

A Flathead County commissioner has been charged with felony criminal mischief.

Phil Mitchell, 64, of Whitefish is said to have “purposely or knowingly, and without consent, damaged or destroyed public property belonging to Flathead County,” in the form of cottonwood trees.

According to court documents, a Flathead County Parks and Recreation employee discovered six cottonwood trees that were either dead or dying in Lake Park Addition on Whitefish Lake on July 11.

Mitchell, who owns a residence and property adjacent to the county-owned public park, allegedly admitted that he was responsible for the damage. Mitchell “may be in the process of trying to sell that property,” court documents state.

According to Mitchell, he reportedly killed the trees by “girdling” them and pouring herbicide on one or more of them, court documents state. Girdling is a method where someone removes a strip of bark in a ring around the tree trunk. According to the U.S. Forest Service, “Girdling is the traditional method of killing trees without felling them.” If the ring is “wide enough and deep enough,” the tree cannot heal, nor can it transport nutrients to leaves or roots.

An arborist was called in by Flathead County Sheriff’s Office to evaluate the trees and come up with a cost to replace them. Sheriff Chuck Curry said the cost was substantial, more than $30,000 to remove and replace the dead trees.

Mitchell has been summoned to make an initial appearance in Flathead District Court on Aug. 31. A phone call to Mitchell for comment was not returned by deadline.

Mitchell has a past with the half-acre public park that was established in 1913 and features mature trees, benches and a floating dock. The park is accessible by West Lakeshore Drive and a 60-foot-wide county easement that runs to the lakeshore — but also along Mitchell’s lot line.

In 2010, Flathead County officials accused Mitchell of encroaching on a county right-of-way on West Lakeshore Drive by building a landscaped berm with large boulders that jutted in front of the entrance to the park. Mitchell, who was a Whitefish city councilor at the time, claimed the city had given him permission to put in the landscaping.

At one time Mitchell had proposed a land swap with the county, offering to trade 3 acres along the Whitefish River in Evergreen for the Whitefish Lake site.

That proposal was never given a formal hearing.

The county park is one of six public access sites on the shore of Whitefish Lake.

Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 758-4431 or hmatheson@dailyinterlake.com.

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