Stewards of the Land

Flathead Land Trust celebrating 30 years of conserving the valley’s natural heritage and rural landscape

From the crowded Bay Area in Northern California, David Sowerwine and his wife, Haydi, last month retreated to a plot of land secluded near the north shore of Flathead Lake. For David, arriving at the quiet countryside was like traveling back in time to when he and his siblings spent a greater part of their youth in this rural acreage that their father, Owen, had acquired in the early 1950s.

The Sowerwine family farm encompasses 157 acres along the shores of Fennon Slough, a meandering channel of the Flathead River near its final destination in the expansive, pristine lake. The property includes one of the valley’s original homesteads, and historic log cabins still dot the empty landscape.

The family is now only visitors; the real tenants are deer, geese, pheasants and the occasional grizzly.

“A lot of it is almost unchanged,” David said last month, gazing out across the panoramic view.

“I love the open views of the north shore, but I used to take it for granted, thinking it’s always going to be there … It’s no accident. It’s taken a lot of work and taken dedication. It’s not by accident that we get to see this.”

As the Flathead Valley has grown from the days of Sowerwine’s youth, the farmland has remained intact because of the family’s partnership with an organization devoted to conserving treasured space.

David and his family partnered with the fledgling Flathead Land Trust 30 years ago to acquire a conservation easement, a guarantee that the land will not be developed or subdivided while allowing for historical uses such as farming.

Flathead Land Trust was founded by a group of community members who saw the likelihood of the valley’s urban growth in the years ahead and were interested in preserving some of its original rural character.

“This (valley) was an undiscovered gem and there was a sense that this was a place that was going to take off,” Lex Blood, a professional geologist and longtime educator who has served as a community advisor for the organization, said. “But this idea of conservation easements at the time was radical. Thirty years ago, people would look at the valley and say, ‘We’re never going to run out of land here.’”

As more tracts of farmland were subdivided and sold, the importance of a conservation easement became clearer, Blood said.

Using the Sowerwine easement as a catalyst and building block, the Flathead Land Trust gained momentum in the 1980s, preserving vital sections near Flathead River and other beloved habitat and property. Today, the nonprofit organization holds 52 conservation easements totaling over 10,500 acres. The group, which is accredited through the national Land Trust Accreditation Commission for meeting national standards of excellence, has also collaborated with other organizations and agencies to complete 13 projects protecting over 2,600 additional acres. One of the nonprofit’s largest efforts is the River to Lake Initiative, which has protected more than 5,000 acres of land along the Flathead River.

“People want to live here because they know it’s a special place. We all want to save those special qualities that make the Flathead so great. Open, undeveloped land in rural countryside is very important to that, along with clean water, wildlife habitat and recreational opportunities,” said Paul Travis, executive director of the Flathead Land Trust.

The organization is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year and July is Open Land Month in Montana, offering an opportunity for residents to recognize the agricultural heritage, economic benefits and recreational opportunities that are all tied to open land.

The Land Trust is holding events to recognize the milestone, including a community tap night at Tamarack Brewing Co. in Lakeside on July 29. A float trip along the Flathead River is scheduled for Aug. 29 and anyone interested is encouraged to register soon because it is filling up. A bike and bird tour is slated for Sept. 19. The organization’s main event and fundraiser is the barn bash on Sept. 26, hosted at the Diamond B Ranch with live music by Jack Gladstone, Davie Griffith and Phil Aaberg.

The legacy of the Flathead Land Trust is rooted in the conservation tradition of many visionary community members, including the Sowerwine family. Owen Sowerwine was a prominent community figure who helped start Flathead Valley Community College. He was also an advocate for conserving vital lands in the mid 20th century in Kalispell. He helped preserve the 442-acre natural area on the south end of town that now bears his name. He also initiated the protection of the north shore of Flathead Lake by helping landowners purchase easements that later became the Flathead Lake Waterfowl Production Area.

After Owen passed away in 1975, David later took charge in preserving the family farm through a conservation easement in 1985.

“You can’t count on the good attitude of every generation to carry on your tradition,” David said. “There’s no more new territory like this.”

Organizations like the Land Trust have been criticized for sometimes impeding development and growth.

But Travis, Sowerwine and others see it differently.

“We’re not against development. We’re all about that balance between appropriate development and saving our special places, which is the whole reason why people want to live here and why we’re seeing such a good economy here,” Travis said.

“Open land is the Montana experience. When you think of Montana, you don’t think of an urban place with city streets. You think of open land and scenic views.”

For more information about the Flathead Land Trust and its 30th anniversary events, visit www.flatheadlandtrust.org.

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