Before their informal tournament in the Stillwater State Forest, a dozen disc golfers gathered among the massive pines to discuss their sport – and the potential impact on it of a logging project proposed by the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.
“Depending on what trees are removed here, the course would be worthless,” said Ken Deeds, the unofficial organizer of the weekly tournaments.
“It’s such a low-key sport that nobody really knows about it,” added Hugh Black. “But there are a lot of people that enjoy this place.”
Disc golf, or “Folf,” is played how it sounds: golf with flying discs resembling smaller, heavier Frisbees. The “hole” on most courses is a chain basket, but the Stillwater course simply has posts with metal tops that give off a satisfying “bing” sound after a successful putt.
“A lot of young adults use it and they use it responsibly and respectfully,” said state Sen. Dan Weinberg, D-Whitefish.
The 18-hole Stillwater course’s difficulty derives almost entirely from the location and density of trees. Thus, a logging project on the area has the potential to disrupt the growing and enthusiastic numbers who show up to talk, amble through the forest, and huck their discs.
In addition to the area encompassing the disc golf course near Smith Lake, the DNRC proposes thinning on areas near Skyles Lake and Beaver Lake as part of Montana’s State trust land program, where revenue raised from timber harvests benefits public schools, state colleges and universities. The DNRC proposes harvesting on roughly 500 to 1,000 acres of land and hopes to raise between $1 million and $3 million.
A timber harvest is also necessary to mitigate the hazard in an area the DNRC categorizes as being at “high risk of an intensive stand-replacement fire,” by reducing ground fuels and stand density, as well as clearing out some fir trees attacked by beetles and western larch infected by dwarf mistletoe.
But because the sites for the proposed harvest surround parts of Whitefish Lake, some in the community are beginning to question whether the logging will adversely affect recreation around the lake – for disc golfers and other users of the land.
Whitefish Credit Union President Charlie Abell is concerned that part of the logging strategy, which will consist of small clearcuts of three to five acres, could damage real estate prices by detracting from the views on the east shore of Whitefish Lake looking west.
“All three areas that they’re planning on logging are pretty damn central to the ambience that Whitefish presents,” Abell said, adding that a previous timber harvest in the Beaver Lake area “wasn’t very pretty.”
Some involved in the “Trail Runs Through It” project to create a recreational loop around Whitefish Lake are also wary of potential harm to recreation posed by the timber harvest.
Diane Conradi is an attorney negotiating a land exchange proposal by part-time Whitefish resident Mike Goguen to provide land to the state for its school trust program, while protecting an area for a section of the “Trail Runs Through It” project.
“The risk exists that these harvesting activities will make the recreational opportunities less available and less attractive,” Conradi said. “We hope to find some kind of solution that will give revenue to the schools and keep these lands available for quality recreation.”
While the needs – both to raise timber revenue from state lands and provide the recreation that makes Whitefish Whitefish – are oft-conflicting, Conradi praises the DNRC for its willingness to engage the community so far.
“I think that this is in the early stages and I think the state has shown a willingness to reach innovative solutions,” she said.
The DNRC has been offering tours of proposed harvest sites and taking public comment until July 12. Bob Sandman, area manager for the DNRC’s northwestern land office, said he wants to encourage anyone with concerns about the timber proposal to contact the agency.
“Let’s go out on the ground,” Sandman said. “Let’s actually look at these stands and these conditions and let’s have a civil dialogue about what to do about these conditions.”
Sandman does not expect any harvesting to begin until the end of 2008, and said all options are on the table when it comes to accommodating recreational users.
“You could easily end up with the Folf course and integration with the trail system, stand alone, or some other option that I’m not thinking of yet,” he added.
Sandman and Deeds say the timber harvest is likely to compel disc golfers to become more organized and purchase a yearly permit to use the land. But by taking responsibility for clean up and maintenance of the course, Deeds said, the disc golfers might also be able to hold more organized tournaments to raise money for those needs.
Last week, the disc golfers were aware, but not yet overly concerned about the thinning project. When someone’s disc landed squarely behind a large pine that blocked a path to the hole, the Folfer joked “I hope they log this one right here.”
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