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Popular Somers Beach could become state park

by Kianna Gardner
Daily Inter Lake | March 28, 2020 1:00 AM

Montana State Parks, the Flathead Land Trust and other stakeholders would like to convert the popular Somers Beach on Flathead Lake’s north shore into a state park and are asking for the public’s input on the matter.

A post on social media from the Lakeside Somers Chamber of Commerce states the intention for this potential project is to open up the area, which at low water is an expansive sandy beach that stretches for about half a mile of Flathead Lake, for “year-round human enjoyment.” It also says the beach has “long been the community’s playground, but it needs to be in the hands of an agency who can manage the high use this site receives, especially in the spring.”

Through the years residents and tourists have flocked to the area that is private property owned by the Sliter family, which has allowed the public to continue using the acreage. The Sliter family has owned the land since 1930 and according to Andrea Goudge, chief financial officer for Sliters Lumber and Building Supply, they understand how valued the land is and have long been looking for ways to conserve the area for public use.

“Properties like the Sliters are rare along Flathead Lake,” Goudge said in an email. “With this project, we have a real opportunity to conserve this vital piece of land and preserve our Montana outdoor heritage on what is considered the crown jewel of the Crown of the Continent ecosystem.”

The area spans about 60 acres of wetland, 69 acres of 100-year floodplain and habitat for fish and wildlife and is situated adjacent to the Flathead Lake Waterfowl Production Area. When the lake levels are low, the wildlife haven is a popular tourist and resident destination during sunny spring days and when the lake levels rise during the summer, the area’s shallow waters extend far out from the shore, providing a safe area for families to swim and recreate.

And for about a decade now the Flathead Land Trust has been working with the Sliters to find a way to protect the property and keep it open to the public for the long term. Paul Travis, executive director of the Flathead Land Trust, said at different times over those 10 years the parties considered a county park, a fishing access site and other ideas. But when Montana State Parks expressed interest in the parcel, Travis said the idea seemed like a natural fit.

“We have gone over many ideas for how we can best conserve and manage this property. This area has been a priority for the land trust for a long time and we all see this as a really great opportunity,” Travis said. “That being said, this is in the really preliminary stages. Right now we are just looking for letters of support from the public so state parks can figure out if they want to move forward with this.”

Turning the area into a state park would mean agencies like Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks could manage the area. In addition, Travis said having another formal public area around Flathead Lake would not only boost local economies in Somers and Lakeside, but would bring some much-needed relief to other public access points around the lake.

“Different organizations and agencies are always looking for opportunities to expand public access on Flathead Lake because there are so few sites available as is,” Travis said. “The public access sites are overflowing with capacity. If you’ve ever driven by the Somers boat launch in the summer, you know what I’m talking about.”

Flathead Lake is one of the largest natural freshwater lakes in the country, but there are only 13 public access sites along the 185 miles of shoreline. The Somers fishing access site is only about two acres in size and is located off a busy stretch of U.S. 93, and according to Goudge, the current space available at the Somers site “just does not meet the public demand for desired public use.”

Because other access sites are so crowded, Goudge and Travis say the idea of another state park is already receiving widespread support from residents and tourists alike. BJ and Joli Johnson, owners of Spoke and Paddle in Somers, said they would welcome the opportunity to launch their popular paddle tours from an area other than the Somers boat launch where traffic has become “absurd.”

“Right now, especially in the summer months, it’s almost a safety hazard to launch at that site. It’s only a matter of time until somehow gets hurt over there,” BJ said. “Opening up more access sites would alleviate some of these problems.”

Luke McAdams, a local Somers resident, said his two daughters and wife spend a great deal of time at the beach and would like to see the property remain open to the public and be efficiently managed.

“We are down there all the time when the weather is nice,” McAdams said. “My girls even made some signs to support the place becoming a park.”

The public has been asked to submit their comments via email by April 1 to ProtectSomersBeach@gmail.com and address them to Angie Grove with Montana State Parks and Martha Williams with Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks.

According to Travis, the letters and other important information about the proposed project will then be compiled and sent to Montana State Parks and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks officials for their consideration.

The Flathead Land Trust has proposed FWP purchase the property from the Sliter family. The project would also allow portions of an adjacent property owned by BNSF Railway Co. that was formerly contaminated to potentially become part of the public accessible park. Cleanup of the former railroad tie treating facility has been implemented under the direction of the Environmental Protection Agency, which has declared a recreation site as an appropriate and good future use of the project site.

Turning the beach into a park, according to Goudge, is also part of a larger vision for conserving the north shore of the lake and the Flathead River through the collaborative Flathead River to Lake Initiative. This initiative involves landowners, land trusts, conservation organizations and county, tribal and federal agencies working together to conserve critical lands along the lake’s shore.

Reporter Kianna Gardner may be reached at 758-4407 or kgardner@dailyinterlake.com.