Many of the places we once treasured as “ours” are gone.
The places where we traditionally enjoyed the outdoors have slowly given way to development and land sales. Places like Bitterroot Lake — Plum Creek Land — where you could camp or fish most anywhere along the shore, are gone, sold to the highest bidder.
As development slowly erodes our traditional — albeit privately owned — access to recreation areas, one group is making sure that one area is preserved close to Kalispell.
The Foys to Blacktail group is a grassroots movement looking to secure continued access to the several miles of recreational trails that stretch from Herron Park near Foys Lake to Blacktail Mountain near Lakeside. The trails, which begin near the Flathead County Park at Herron Park, crisscross myriad private ownerships on their way to Blacktail Mountain. Louisiana Land Co. and Plum Creek Timber Co. own the largest chunks of private land that the trails cross. But one landowner, the Chase family, has now provided an easement across its 160 acres, giving the Foys to Blacktail project a needed boost.
John and Myron Chase have granted an easement on their land, which sits on a ridge overlooking Smith Lake to the west and Herron Park to the east. The land has been in the Chase family since 1910 without any restrictions on public access, and the Chase family intends to keep it that way.
“Our family gave us the land in 1954, and since we have no heirs, and we don’t want the land to be subdivided, we felt it was an opportunity to give back to the people of the Flathead Valley,” John Chase said.
Chase said the family always referred to the property as “grandfather’s forest,” and he has fond memories of exploring the forest as a child.
The Foys to Blacktail group has been working for about five years on securing access across the checkerboard private land. Formerly called the Birch Creek trails project, the group changed its name to better reflect a more well-known public name. Their vision is for a year-round trails system that allows nonmotorized access for hikers, horseback riders and bicyclists — all the way from Herron Park to Blacktail Mountain near Lakeside.
The trail system has local historical significance. It is said to be a Forest Service pack trail that provided access to Blacktail Mountain from Kalispell. On a 1962s-era Forest Service map, the trail was marked as “No. 73.” A French Jesuit priest carved his name and the date of 1797 on a rock that was found on the Herron farm, according to the group.
In the last 25 years, Kalispell resident Birthe Kaltschmidt has walked throughout the forests of the trail system, and she cherishes its proximity to town.
While recent knee surgery has kept her from going up the steep mountain trails any longer, she remembers the days when wanderlust took her to points unknown on the trail system. “Twenty five years ago, I’d just get lost in here,” Kaltschmidt said Wednesday as she walked her golden retriever, Pumpernickel, on a trail near Herron Park. “We’ve enjoyed this park. It’s wonderful. It’s great.”
The park trail system is also important to Rosemary McKinnon, a Foys to Blacktail board member who lives nearby.
When she learned that private development could threaten continued public access to the historic trail system, she rallied around the cause.
“I was very distressed that the trail was not a permanent trail,” McKinnon said. “I decided that it was important enough to me … and probably to other residents of the valley… that there needed to be a push to make this a permanent access. It’s the closest public land to Kalispell that’s not been developed.”
With McKinnon’s and the volunteer group’s help, the Chase family provided the first piece of the puzzle.
The Chase easement, she said, will hopefully encourage the other landowners to follow suit. “It was like a set of dominos,” McKinnon said. “Nobody wanted to be the first one. It’s really an act of great generosity on the Chase family’s part.”
Once the easements are secured and trail improvements are made, it will be up to the Foys to Blacktail volunteers to maintain the 25-mile trail system, McKinnon said. The group will apply for grants to help fund the project, she said.
A similar trails project is underway in Whitefish. The “Trail Runs Through It” project seeks to preserve public access on private land for nonmotorized access to more than 50 miles of trail.
McKinnon said public access to land is important to the quality of life in northwest Montana.
“Both these projects will enhance our access to our natural surroundings,” she said. “Our economy is dependent on maintaining this kind of access and not building on every piece of it.”
The next push for the Foys to Blacktail project will be to secure a permanent trail easement through the Plum Creek and Louisiana Land Co. land — sections of isolated land where there is little alternative access.
“We need some new blood and some new support, and a groundswell of public interest,” McKinnon said. “It’s important to keep this vision squarely in the public eye.”
For information, call Liz Seabaugh at 752-3318.
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