The First Steps on a Long Trail

By Beacon Staff

Lawrence and Woodland Park are perfect for those seeking swing sets, team sports and paved walkways. But for longer hikes, runs, skis, bike rides and horse rides, Herron Park on Kalispell’s west side, has become the city’s backyard.

Herron Park, however, is a lot smaller than most people realize. And a common misconception among many Kalispell residents who enjoy the park, according to members of the “Foys to Blacktail Trails” organization (FTBT), is that they are on public land when, in fact, they aren’t.

“You’ve got to wonder how many people actually know that they’re spending time on private lands,” said Cliff Kipp, regional director of the Montana Conservation Corp. and FTBT member. “They take it for granted.”

Because the land adjoining Herron is private, Kipp said, the public is largely unaware that its fragile access to the network of trails snaking out from Herron’s boundaries could be taken away at any time with that land’s purchase or development.

For years, the nonprofit FTBT’s mission has been to remedy this situation by developing a trail corridor that winds its way through a patchwork of private and public land from Herron Park south to Blacktail Mountain. That dream took another major step toward becoming reality July 10, when the Conservation Fund agreed to purchase a 320-acre parcel along Herron’s western boundary, preserving the first leg of the trail as it leaves the park.

The Bibler Family Trust provided $2 million to the Conservation Fund to purchase the land from the Broussard family and hold it for two years until FTBT can raise the money to buy it outright. The Broussard parcel is a critical piece in the puzzle linking Herron to a 1,000-acre tract owned by Plum Creek Timber Co., then on to a 160-acre property owned by John and Myron Chase of Great Falls. The Chases have granted a conservation easement to the Montana Land Reliance allowing the trail to continue south and limiting development on their land.

Flathead County Parks Board member Jim Watson is married to Carol Bibler and helped negotiate the deal.

“It’s jump up and down time,” Watson said last week, adding that as Kalispell grows, so too does the need for nearby open land to enjoy.

“It’s a very heavily recreated area, and as the area grows and develops that usage is going to go up considerably,” Watson said. “I think we have a very short and fleeting opportunity to pull some of these big projects off, and then these lands are going to get developed.”

The FTBT is jumping on that opportunity. Last week, a Montana Conservation Corp. youth crew was enduring record heat to build the trail through the Chase property. In June, Plum Creek gave the M.C.C. another $4,000 to continue that work. The FTBT group will also apply this month for a federal grant through the Forest Legacy Program to purchase and preserve land for the trail as working commercial timberland.

But the road – or trail – ahead for the FTBT project is fraught with a number of unknowns. South of the Chase land, the proposed trail crosses mostly private property owned by Plum Creek and the F.H. Stoltze Land & Lumber Company.

Jerry Sorensen, Plum Creek’s director of Land Asset Management, said his company is unsure of its long-term plans for the land, but remains supportive of the trail project.

“Right now, we’re not contemplating any development there,” Sorensen said. “We’re really not doing anything there except continuing to manage the timber and waiting to see what Foys-to-Blacktail brings us.”

Sorenson said Plum Creek would prefer to sell the land or simply the narrow corridor for the trail in order to avoid liability, but now that the Broussard property is falling into place, the time for more serious talks with FTBT will begin: “I’ve kind of left it to that group to come back to me with a proposal.”

Architects of the Foys-to-Blacktail Trail envision the eventual establishment of a valley-wide recreational trail system, linking up with the Rails-to-Trails path out to Kila and similar projects under development in Whitefish. As other communities develop their own recreational trail projects they can route into a growing network.

But first things first: FTBT must raise $2 million in the next two years or risks losing some or all of the Broussard land, effectively deflating the project. Liz Seabaugh, also of the FTBT, said her group is already organizing fundraisers.

“Now, we really need all of the community to step forward both in time and money,” Seabaugh added. “It’s a tremendous task.”