Draft Environmental Assessment Published for Big Arm Easement

State agencies are seeking public comment on a permanent easement for the popular park on Flathead Lake

By Tristan Scott
Wild Horse Island as seen from Big Arm State Park on Sept. 19, 2019. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The fate of Big Arm State Park along Flathead Lake isn’t yet sealed, but it’s one step closer to a permanent solution.

In a joint proposal, two state agencies — Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) and the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) — are looking to purchase a permanent recreation easement for Big Arm State Park, located about 18 miles north of Polson.

A draft environmental analysis (EA) detailing the proposal, including two alternatives, is now available for review and open to public input through Jan. 3, 2020.

The 218-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.

It’s also the primary access point to get to Wild Horse Island, the largest on Flathead Lake. That access 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 FWP, which operates, manages and maintains the site for public recreation, and the DNRC, 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.

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.

Two alternatives are proposed in the draft EA that is currently out for public input. The first alternative proposes the purchase of a permanent recreation easement for the existing 218-acre park for the appraised value of $8.06 million. A second alternative proposes the purchase of a permanent recreation easement for the existing 218-acre park plus approximately 23 acres of adjoining state school trust land that would expand the park on its southern boundary. The cost for this alternative would be the appraised value of $10.63 million.

“By creating a permanent recreation easement with a one-time payment, DNRC and FWP mutually agree that this proposal would fulfill the mission for DNRC of generating revenue to support education in Montana, while providing FWP the ability to provide continued management of the property as a public recreation and lake access facility,” according to FWP officials.

If FWP were to pay full-market value of the property for a permanent recreation easement, funding would be broken up into a variety of potential sources (state, federal and private), including FWP’s general license account, Pittman-Robertson and Dingell-Johnson federal aid, state parks earned revenue, Land and Water Conservation Fund, and the Montana Fish and Wildlife Conservation Trust.

“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,” Dave Landstrom, park manager for FWP’s Region 1, 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 draft EA is available online at fwp.mt.gov, stateparks.mt.gov and dnrc.mt.gov.

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