Bigfork Conservation Group Celebrates Grassroots Success

Group leader Dave Hadden reflects on community impact, looks to future activism

By Clare Menzel
The bridge along Flathead Lake leading to Dockstader Island. Beacon File Photo

A controversial 581-foot-long, 16-foot-wide bridge stretches from Flathead Lake’s north shore over cold, clear waters to the private Dockstader Island. It casts a shadow over a stretch of lake that was once a peninsula and provides a resting spot for a gallery of birds. But the structure, which some residents consider a blemish on the lakescape, may soon be torn down and the north shore’s untarnished visage restored.

On Sept. 16, in a case brought against Flathead County and its board of county commissioners by the Community Association for North Shore Conservation (CANSC), Flathead County District Judge Robert Allison ruled that the bridge’s permit is invalid and ordered the removal of the bridge.

As required by the Lakeshore Protection Act, it is the county’s duty to seek public comment on “significant” construction projects along the shoreline. But the 2011 county commission deemed the project “minimal,” so the permit was approved without public notification or review — a decision that conservation-minded locals have protested ever since developers began construction in 2014, and a decision that Allison has now officially ruled as an error.

CANSC formed in early 2015 under the leadership of Dave Hadden, director at Headwaters Montana, who lives near the bridge site, to protest the development. In 2015, the group filed suit against the county, alleging that the commission unlawfully issued the bridge’s permit. The group considers the ruling a victory, as well as the lasting momentum and community engagement that CASC has been able to rally.

In fall 2015, the group gathered more than 100 local citizens on the beautiful lakeshore, where they stood in front of the initial construction, holding up two massive banners that read: “Significant?” “Absolutely.”

“That spoke volumes to us about how broadly the community was concerned about this issue,” Hadden said. “It was really gratifying that the community came out and stood behind us. It wasn’t just us (the leaders); it was the community … This really is a community victory — the concern people showed on this issue, it was really strong.”

CANSC has now expanded its conservation efforts beyond the Dockstader bridge to include making lake access off Holt Drive in Bigfork more user-friendly, and conserving north shore wetlands, the largest wetland complex on Flathead Lake. The part-watchdog, part-conservation group’s four-pronged mission statement now includes monitoring development activity along the Flathead shore, preventing inappropriate development, serving as an information conduit for the public regarding issues affecting the lake, and enjoying the beauty of the lake without harming it.

“All of us have day jobs, and it’s really just grassroots,” Hadden said. “We’re a Bigfork-based group, but the support we received is valley-wide. What does that mean for the future? We just don’t know. We’re all spread pretty thin … but it’s fair to say that, based on the amount of work and effort, those involved are going to remain vigilant.”

They also plan to see the Dockstader bridge fight to the very end.

“We have to assume, at this point, that the developer may appeal, so we have to prepare for that and this issue is not over,” Hadden said. “And secondly, the bridge has not been removed yet, so we have to be there to make sure that happens.”

Allison did not set a deadline for bridge removal in his decision, and if the developer, Jolene Dugan, does decide to appeal, the order to remove the structure would have to be stayed until the Supreme Court ruling is handed down.

“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” Allison told the Beacon.

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