Besides the eye-popping scenery and the glassy expanse of Flathead Lake, the view of Wild Horse Island from Big Arm State Park offers a striking glimpse of how public lands are administered in Montana, as well as the complicated task of maintaining access to the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi.
Most visitors probably don’t take time to untangle those bureaucratic nuances from the slice of Montana paradise they’re fortunate enough to inhabit for a day or a night, and frankly, who can blame them?
On a recent crisp September morning, campers brewed coffee and cooked breakfast at designated lakefront sites while wildlife watchers equipped with binoculars and daypacks departed the park’s boat access for a trip to Wild Horse Island, which in addition to furnishing its namesake mares with a protected place to live also provides habitat for mule deer and big horn sheep while affording the public a primitive recreation experience.
Unless you’re a private landowner, however, getting to Wild Horse Island, the largest on Flathead Lake, is made possible most frequently via the launch point at Big Arm State Park, which since 1966 has been a cherished site for public recreation on Flathead Lake — boating, angling, camping and daytime activities.
What a lot of visitors don’t understand is how that access is preserved through an agreement forged between two state agencies — Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, which operates, manages and maintains the site for public recreation, and the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, which owns the property in a trust benefiting schools.
For more than five decades, FWP has leased the Big Arm Unit of Flathead Lake State Park from the DNRC at a rate of 5 percent of its appraised value, renegotiating the deal every five or 10 years.
The primary responsibility for state trust lands is to generate revenue for the trust, which supports public education in Montana. The DNRC is mandated to maximize their revenue on trust lands. Montana has 5.2 million acres of state trust land.
The challenge at Big Arm, state officials say, has been meeting the projected appraised value of such a large swath of lakeshore property on Flathead Lake, particularly as those costs rise exponentially.
“Everyone acknowledged the appraised value was going to jump,” Dave Landstrom, park manager for FWP’s Region 1, said.
The current annual lease structure is set to expire on March 1, 2020, after which the DNRC will revert to a standard lease appraisal rate formula, which is expected to jump from $18,000 a year to as high as $600,000 a year.
In response, the 2019 Montana Legislature passed House Bill 695, carried by state Rep. Jim Keane, D-Butte, and co-sponsored by Rep. Greg Hertz, R-Polson, which authorizes FWP to purchase a permanent recreation easement from DNRC for the continued operation of a public recreation site at Big Arm. The cost of a permanent easement is the appraised value of the park, which is estimated to be approximately $12 million.
“If we had to give up the lease and didn’t succeed at negotiating a permanent easement, it would be necessary for the DNRC to explore other ways to generate revenue off that valuable property,” Landstrom said, noting that development pressures could lead to diminished public access. “With a permanent easement, their responsibility to the trust is fulfilled and it keeps a critical access point on Flathead Lake in public hands. It really is a win-win solution.”
The park is arguably the most significant access point for boating and angling on Flathead Lake and is the primary departure point for the Wild Horse Island Unit of Flathead State Park.
The agencies have worked out deals in the past to secure conservation easements on trust land, including the recent acquisition of easements at Thompson Falls State Park and Echo Lake Fishing Access.
The 217-acre park at Big Arm is one of six state parks serving Flathead Lake. The site offers 48 tent and RV campsites, a group campsite, three yurts and day-use facilities, including toilets and picnic tables, while providing year-round boat access.
Big Arm is typically the second most popular state park on Flathead Lake in terms of visitation. In 2015, an estimated 40,500 people visited the site, a 15 percent increase over 2014, according to state data.
Even though it was passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor, the measure still requires approval by the State Land Board and is subject to completion of the appraisal, which parks officials hope falls below the estimated $12 million cost.
Once the assessment is finalized, a public scoping period will commence and, barring any significant objections, FWP will devise a plan to pay for the permanent easement, most likely using a mixture of general license dollars, Pittman-Robertson and Dingell-Johnson federal dollars, State Parks funds, and private donations.
Fortunately for FWP, public interests in maintaining access at Big Arm runs high, and the Montana State Parks Foundation headed by executive director Coby Gierke has been hard at work rallying support behind the easement.
Gierke and Flathead Lake State Park Manager Amy Grout recently led a group of public land stakeholders on a tour of Big Arm State Park and Wild Horse Island State Park, showcasing both the ease of access and the diverse suite of recreational opportunities and unique wildlife habitat.
“It’s like a playground out here,” Gierke said from a prominence overlooking Wild Horse Island, where horses loped through grasslands while mule deer and bighorn sheep grazed in peace. “We’re looking at the trifecta of species here. If this easement was to go away it would be a devastating loss.”
On an adjacent hillside, a crew of Montana Conservation Corps volunteers worked to construct a switch-backing trail leading to a high ridge atop the island, helping FWP maximize its miniscule budgetary allotment for project maintenance and habitat revitalization on Wild Horse.
“This crew’s work effectively triples our budget on Wild Horse Island,” Grout said, noting that only about $5,000 is spent annually on the state park unit.
To help offset costs for such projects, Gierke and the Montana State Parks Foundation established the Flathead Action Fund to help support the immediate and future needs for the purchase, restoration and improvement of Big Arm, as well as the other state parks on Flathead Lake. The organization has raised $50,000 to contribute to the easement purchase from the DNRC, and continues to mount public support for and awareness of the unique role state parks play in Montana.
Landstrom said sealing the deal in a cooperative agreement establishing the ability to operate and manage such a critical public recreation site in perpetuity will stand out as a prominent success story in his career.
“This has been a 10-year effort for me and I can finally see the finish line,” he said. “I am checking boxes just as soon as they turn green and I’m optimistic we’re going to get this done.”