Flathead County Commissioner Phil Mitchell issued written apologies to county officials for destroying five cottonwood trees on a county-owned parkland near his home on Whitefish Lake.
The Flathead County Attorney’s Office charged Mitchell with felony criminal mischief for the alleged offense. He is scheduled to appear in Flathead County District Court on Aug. 31 before Judge Heidi Ulbricht.
Sheriff Chuck Curry said his office investigated a complaint from an employee with Flathead County Parks and Recreation, who discovered six dead or dying cottonwood trees on the park near Mitchell’s home, and hired an arborist to estimate the value of the trees, as well as the cost of replacing them, which totaled more than $30,000.
“We obtained a professional bid on the trees and it was over $30,000, which makes it a felony,” Curry said Wednesday night.
When asked about the dead trees, Mitchell admitted that he was responsible for the damage, according to an affidavit in support of the charge, filed Aug. 8 by Flathead County Attorney Ed Corrigan.
In a statement, Mitchell said he informed the county that he “girdled five cottonwood trees in the unimproved county parkland near my home.” He stated the county had previously removed several other cottonwood trees at Mitchell’s request and expense, and his neighbor has also removed “dozens of trees from his forested land.”
Girdling is a tree-removal tactic where a thick strip of bark ringing the tree’s circumference is completely removed, causing the entire tree to die. Mitchell said he also poured the herbicide Roundup on one of the trees.
“With more than three decades in the landscaping business, I believe cottonwoods are a substantial nuisance,” Mitchell stated. “They frequently drop limbs, endangering people, and they are dirty, dropping cotton, pods, and sticky sap, depending on the time of year. But even with this knowledge, I was wrong to kill the trees without county permission.”
In a July 24 letter to Parks and Recreation Director Jed Fisher, Mitchell apologized for his actions, volunteered to pay restitution and or plant new trees, or make other improvements. He deferred to the Flathead County Parks and Recreation board to determine what species of tree should be replanted.
“I realize that because of my elected position, I may have put county officials in an awkward position. I have urged them to treat me no differently than they would treat any other citizen,” Mitchell stated. “I take complete responsibility for this wrongful act and apologize to everyone in Flathead County for my conduct. I look forward to restoring the parkland to better than ever condition.”
The property and adjacent parkland is located just south of Whitefish Lake State Park, on the west shore. The half-acre county-owned park is known as the Lake Park Addition.
Mitchell, a former member of the Whitefish City Council from 2010 to 2013, was elected to the Flathead County Board of Commissioners in 2014. He owns property along West Lakeshore Drive, in an area ringing the city of Whitefish known as the “doughnut,” which Flathead County assumed jurisdictional control over in July 2014 following a ruling by the Montana Supreme Court.
The park features a floating dock, picnic tables and groves of mature trees, and it is accessed by a 60-foot-wide county easement off of West Lakeshore Drive that tracks down to the lakeshore.
Mitchell has previously approached the county about acquiring the lakefront park through a land swap, offering three acres of land he owns along the Whitefish River in Evergreen for the county site.