Landmark Moment for the Whitefish Trail

By Beacon Staff

In a landmark moment for the Whitefish Trail, the Montana Land Board on Nov. 19 unanimously approved two transactions that secure permanent public access on state trust lands west of town, restrict development, protect scenic vistas and allow for future expansion of the popular recreation trail.

The transactions will provide more than $10 million to school trust beneficiaries. They are the latest components of the Whitefish School Trust Lands Neighborhood Plan, which the Land Board approved in 2004.

At its Nov. 19 meeting, the Land Board approved a recreation easement proposed by the city of Whitefish and nonprofit group Whitefish Legacy Partners. The easement permanently secures public access to 1,520 acres and allows for expansion of the Whitefish Trail to connect Murray, Beaver, Woods, Dollar and Little Beaver lakes.

According to a press release from Whitefish Legacy Partners, the deal was approved at full-market value of approximately $7.3 million. The nonprofit will pay that amount through “community donations, corporate sponsors and generous philanthropic partnerships.” The city will hold the easement, which also retires development rights, at no cost to taxpayers.

The Land Board also gave the green light to a land bank transaction proposed by Michael Goguen, a venture capitalist and philanthropist who has been instrumental in establishing the Whitefish Trail. In the land bank deal, Goguen’s Two Bear Properties of Whitefish will purchase 580 acres a market value cost of about $2.9 million.

The Goguen transaction involves a two home-site development restriction and a dedicated two-mile addition to the Whitefish Trail. It also ensures that scenic vistas along the trail are protected.

“It’s not every day that I can take part in a project with so many worthy goals rolled into one – protecting scenic vistas, abundant wildlife, healthy forests and pristine water, while creating a world-class trail system and supporting education,” Goguen said in a statement.

City representatives, including Mayor John Muhlfeld and Parks and Recreation Director Karl Cozad, traveled to the meeting in Helena to show their support for the land deals. A number of other people in involved with the project, including Goguen, attended the meeting as well.

A letter of support submitted to the Land Board was signed by more than 200 community members, including every city councilor. The letter asked the board to support the transactions, noting that such projects help “build and grow the recreation amenities that are the backbone of the local and state tourism economies.”

The sun lightly breaks through the morning fog to illuminate the changing trees around Skyles Lake in a view from the overlook along the Whitefish Trail on Lion Mountain. file photo – Lido Vizzutti/Flathead Beacon

Earlier this month, three new miles of the Whitefish Trail were unveiled for the Swift Creek area, bringing the total number of completed miles to 22. The long-term goal is to have 55 miles of trail encircling Whitefish Lake and connecting the city’s paved trail system to Whitefish Mountain Resort.

The Whitefish Legacy Partners’ release notes that the trail is the result of “countless hours of public meetings, fundraising events, work sessions, trail building, multi-agency support, public and private partnerships, hundreds of volunteers, a Montana State Parks Recreational Trails Program grant, and nine years of Land Board support.”

Among the groups that have been involved are the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, Flathead County, the U.S. Forest Service, Flathead Land Trust and private landowners.

Lin Akey, Whitefish Legacy Partners’ chairman, called the transactions a “win-win for all,” noting that many people aren’t aware that “these lands will continue as working forests and will continue to provide revenue from traditional sources.”

John Anderson, a city councilor, said the community has shown “tremendous support” for the project.

“Thanks to the generosity of the Goguen family and the leadership of Whitefish Legacy Partners,” Anderson said, “the Whitefish Trail has become a valuable community asset and the city is committed to ensure its permanent protection.”

For more information, visit www.whitefishlegacy.org.