When a community comes together, it can go so far.
It can go through wooded forests, government paperwork and years of meetings. It can go forward with an ambitious project, in the face of numerous obstacles, and arrive at the Lion Mountain trailhead on a warm July day, greeted by a ribbon-cutting ceremony reminding everybody how far they’ve come.
On July 17, the first phase of the Whitefish Trail, formerly known as A Trail Runs Through It, was unveiled at Lion Mountain trailhead off of U.S. Highway 93. Twelve miles of new trail for non-motorized recreational use are now open to the public in the vicinity of Lion Mountain, Skyles Lake and Lupfer Road.
“This is a great day for the Whitefish community,” Gov. Brian Schweitzer said. “By working together for a common goal this cooperative effort is a successful example for communities around Montana.”
Ultimately, the Whitefish Trail project will encompass a 55-mile recreational trail system looping around Whitefish Lake. The trail system is planned on state, federal and private lands, creating a unique regional, multi-partner effort that has required innovation and cooperation from many different groups.
In 2003, as development picked up pace throughout the Flathead Valley, the state’s Department of Natural Resources and Conservation began looking into real estate proposals for the more than 13,000 acres of school trust lands in the Whitefish area. Many folks in Whitefish felt uneasy about the prospect of losing this land to development, and they voiced their concerns.
In response, the State Land Board chartered the Whitefish Area Trust Land Advisory Committee to draft the Whitefish Area Trust Lands Neighborhood Plan. The committee consisted of numerous stakeholders, including the DNRC.
Over the next year, the committee held public meetings and work sessions to brainstorm possible uses for the land. From these meetings came a vision of creating a permanent public recreation corridor, of which the trail system is a vital component. The idea was that outdoor recreation could be both an environmentally and financially sound use of land.
Steve Thompson, a board member of the Whitefish Legacy Partners, said the story behind the Whitefish Trail is a story “about partnerships and a can-do attitude.” The Whitefish Legacy Partners was created in 2003 to ensure that the lands around Whitefish are available for future generations.
“That whole episode in 2003 helped galvanize the community to create a better solution and we have brought people together from all stripes,” Thompson said. “We’ve gone from acrimony and anger to positive partnerships.”
State, federal and private lands were identified for use in the public recreation corridor, and cooperation from all the different entities propelled the project forward. Then came the big boost in 2006. Mike Goguen proposed a conservation land exchange, offering assistance with access, construction and funding of the new trail.
The Land Board approved a 440-acre exchange near Goguen’s Whitefish property. Goguen provided a $3.1 million endowment, held by city of Whitefish for the benefit of Whitefish Legacy Partners. He also pledged the first $100,000 of the endowment to get the trail project off the ground.
The July 17 ceremony marked the culmination of all those years of wide-ranging collaboration and forward thinking. Project leaders hope the Whitefish Trail helps lay a foundation for long-term conservation strategies in the greater Whitefish area.
To get to the trailhead, travel on U.S. Highway 93 through Whitefish to the Whitefish Lake State Park turnoff about 1.2 miles north of town. Continue straight on Mountainside Drive, which becomes Lion Mountain Loop Road.
The trailhead has a vault toilet, a kiosk with information and a large parking area. There is also a secondary trailhead located off of Skyles Lake Lane, 3.5 miles west of town.
For more information, visit www.whitefishtrail.org.