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Anyone associated with cultivating Herron Park and Foys to Blacktail Trail from a wide-eyed idea into a first-rate recreation destination will tell you that such a daunting yet hugely rewarding undertaking requires one key ingredient above all others: relationships. Real ones, the kind that involve getting to know each other beyond a transactional level and finding common ground from uncommon starting vantage points.
In short, cooperation and sacrifice, combined with patience and perseverance, in the pursuit of a long-term goal can rise above motivational clichés and render genuinely impactful results that are at once quantifiable — more than $3 million raised and 34 miles of trail built — and less tangible, but no less permanent, like community pride.
“For me, the most important part of it all was the relationships, getting to know the community,” said Jim Watson, who has been involved with Foys to Blacktail since the beginning in 2001, when it was initially named the Birch Creek Trail Project.
“The deep love the community has for that park and project is amazing. We all own that. It was a team effort by a lot of people, not just people on the board, but the people who wrote checks and made it happen, and everybody else who was involved. It makes you feel good about humanity.”
Watson is an outgoing board member — one of numerous board members to volunteer their time over the years — of Foys to Blacktail Trails, the nonprofit organization that has spearheaded Herron Park’s growth from a 120-acre park to a 440-acre recreation stronghold with a sprawling network of trails and equestrian infrastructure.
Last August, the organization completed the final piece of its broad vision: connecting the Herron Park trail system to Blacktail Mountain. Mountain bikers, hikers, runners and horseback riders can now venture all the way from Herron Park’s parking lot near Foys Lake west of Kalispell to the forests near Lakeside on a maintained trail with stunning vistas.
The full trail’s completion was the culmination of 16 years of work, beginning in 2001 when a group of trail enthusiasts began meeting to discuss ways of permanently protecting public access to lands extending south from Herron Park to Blacktail Mountain.
Cliff Kipp, regional director for the Montana Conservation Corps and the longtime former board chair for Foys to Blacktail, recalls trying to pitch the idea to the community in the early days.
“We’d say, ‘We’re going to raise $2 million for this,’” Kipp said. “And they were like, ‘Good luck with that.”
“The volunteers on the Foys to Blacktail board — I give them so much credit for sticking with it,” he added. “Those early years were tough.”
Pulling the entire project together required a series of victories, small and large, over many years. One was raising $2.25 million in phases to purchase 320 acres to add to Herron Park. Foys to Blacktail Trails led that effort, securing funds from individuals, businesses, foundations and agencies. Ownership of the resulting 440-acre park was transferred to the county, which manages it under the parks and recreation department.
Kipp praised Jed Fisher and Gordon Jewett of Flathead County Parks and Recreation for “seeing the big picture” and working with the nonprofit to make the vision become reality. The original park dates back to 1977, when Flathead County acquired 120 acres of Iven Herron’s grazing and timber property through a combination of donated and purchased land.
Beyond the county, constructing the entire trail network involved collaboration, including permanent conservation easements, from an array of stakeholders, comprising individual private landowners, such as John Chase, who offered a critical easement for a public trail corridor on his 160-acre property; Plum Creek Timber Company (now Weyerhaeuser) and Stoltze Land and Lumber Company, whose open-lands policies and cooperation have been integral to the project; and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the U.S. Forest Service, who have offered support in a variety of forms. The recently completed stretch of trail to Blacktail runs through private property and Forest Service land.
A multitude of other organizations and trusts also played roles, including the Bibler Family Trust, Montana Land Reliance, Montana Fish and Wildlife Conservation Trust, The Conservation Fund, Montana State Parks, Community Forest Program, Sustainability Fund and Flathead Land Trust, under which the Foys to Blacktail group initially operated until receiving its 501(c)(3) nonprofit status in 2005.
“Through all of this, partnerships and open communication — consistent, regular communication — is what carried it forward,” Kipp said. “It was really all about nurturing those partnerships.”
In addition to serving as board chair for nearly a decade, Kipp also helped guide many of the trail-building efforts through his Montana Conservation Corps along with other volunteers. While much of the trail network was built by hand, Pete Costain of Terraflow Trail Systems lent his machinery and expertise on a number of portions and miles.
Herron Park’s location, mere minutes from downtown Kalispell, and its diversity of trails and non-motorized recreational offerings make it unique. Hardcore trail runners and mountain bikers can find their slice of paradise as easily as birdwatchers and families out for a casual stroll and picnic, as well as horseback riders of all abilities and winter recreationalists. It hosts popular running and mountain bike races, as well as events like the Flathead Celtic Festival.
From Herron’s parking lot, trail users can choose from the sprawling network immediately before them or take on the full 18 miles south to its culmination at the top of Blacktail Mountain. The nonprofit is crafting updated maps, to be available soon, and within weeks will embark on marking the route from the park to Blacktail Mountain with signage.
“It’s spectacular,” Watson said of the final stretch of trail, noting its wide-ranging ridge-top views of the Flathead and Smith valleys.
Gabe Dillon, Foys to Blacktail’s program coordinator and only paid staff member, came aboard later in the process and feels privileged to be part of such a dedicated community effort. He applauded the tireless work of key figures like Kipp, as well as Liz Seabaugh, Tom Esch and many others, who all contributed to crafting the Foys to Blacktail story, which is still being told.
“That story, I’d like to record and preserve it so people know it,” he said. “All these people put in so much time to make Herron Park what it is today. It’s really cool.”
For more information, visit www.foystoblacktailtrails.org.