The Montana State Parks and Recreation Board voted unanimously Monday to allow the Flathead Land Trust, Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks and other partners to continue their evaluations of whether the popular Somers Beach has the potential to become a formal state park.
Specifically, the board passed a motion to “endorse the proposal to initiate due diligence to explore the purchase of the property.” Members stressed this proposal is still in its infancy and extensive assessment, research and public scoping must occur in the coming months before any sort of a final decision on the matter is made.
The Sliter family, who has owned the 106-acre parcel since 1930, and the Flathead Land Trust recently completed an initial public scoping period to gauge local interest in the project. According to State Parks Administrator Beth Shumate, the proposal received “a significant amount of positive comment.”
The property is located on the north shore of Flathead Lake, and for years the Sliter family has generously allowed the public to access their private property, where a a swath of beach becomes available in late May through most of July, depending on the level of the lake. The area has proven to be a very popular resource for both local residents and tourists, and for about a decade the Sliter family, Flathead Land Trust and others have searched for ways to guarantee public access in the long-term, successfully manage the area and maintain local wildlife habitats. The parcel, which spans about half mile of shoreline, contains 60 acres of wetlands, 69 acres of 100-year floodplain and habitat for fish and wildlife and is situated adjacent to the Flathead Lake Waterfowl area.
Andrea Goudge, chief financial officer for Sliters Lumber and Building Supply, said during Monday’s meeting the property is “unique and rare” on Flathead Lake, where opportunities for public access are “too far and few between” as it is. She said this land acquisition is “truly a legacy opportunity.”
Other access points in Bigfork, Somers, Lakeside and elsewhere are teeming with activity, particularly in the summer months, and many see Somers Beach as an opportunity to alleviate some congestion at other access points. However, the question of who will take on the responsibility of managing the property is still in question — a topic that some members of the public raised in writing during the initial public comment period.
Throughout the years, as more people have come to discover Somers Beach, some say there has also been an influx in the amount of trash that is being left on the property. Aside from managing an increase in garbage, other commenters said they are concerned that an official state park designation might bring more traffic, noise, dogs, opportunities for trespassing and a decrease in surrounding property values.
Board vice chairperson Mary Seehy Moe, said although there is “ardent support” for the project, it “is not without considerable burden” that an entity or agency takes on management responsibilities. Board members and others emphasized the importance of widespread public scoping moving forward.
ASIDE FROM the public’s concerns, board members raised a few of their own. The most widely discussed issue during Monday’s meeting was that of contaminated property that sits on the parcel and is owned by BNSF Railway Co.
According to supporting documents, a portion of the “inholding property” is part of a larger Superfund site and is therefore not accessible to the public, as it “contains sub-surface contaminants associated with a railroad tie-making facility that existed decades ago.”
A portion of the proposed acquisition area has contamination within the groundwater, which means no soil excavation could occur. According to Shumate, that means items such as vault toilets could not be installed, but she also said there are sewer system hookups nearby in areas such as Somers and Bigfork.
The Sliter family and Flathead Land Trust have been in contact with the railroad company regarding design features that would accommodate public use while safeguarding the contamination site. According to Dave Landstrom with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Region 1, the company has “indicated support” for the project overall and has financially invested about $50,000 into the venture.
Landstrom said although extensive assessments must be performed prior to the area becoming a state park, a great deal of environmental investigation has already been performed on Somers Beach and the contaminated property.
He said because organizations have expressed interest in pursuing a project such as this for more than 10 years, various entities such as the Department of Environmental Quality have already performed certain tests on groundwater and other aspects of the property.
“I don’t have a time-line for how long it will take to complete an environmental investigation, but it is worth noting a fair amount of the work has been done already,” Landstrom said.
Moving forward, Fish, Wildlife and Parks will continue their analysis of the property. Eventually, an environmental assessment will be completed and more public scoping will take place.
Reporter Kianna Gardner can be reached at 758-4407 or email@example.com