For years, the sprawling stretch of Flathead Lake shoreline east of Somers has transformed beachside reveries into a relaxing reality.
Each spring, when the lake level is low to accommodate runoff, the recessed water betrays an expanse of sandy beach that draws throngs of visitors; in the summer when the lake is at full pool, the splashy shallows provide a safe area for families to play and recreate; and the peak-studded view of the surrounding mountain ranges steals the scene all year round.
For decades, access to the lakefront property has been conducted through a handshake agreement with its owners, the Sliter family, whose acreage spans a half-mile of shoreline and who has been eying plans to conserve the area while continuing to allow access.
To that end, the Flathead Land Trust and the Sliter family launched a campaign to collect public comment on future plans for the Somers Beach property, with hopes of one day turning it over to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) for management as a state park. Due to the overwhelming response and requests for more time to respond to the proposal, the Flathead Land Trust and the Sliters extended the timeline for the public to submit letters of comment until April 8.
According to members of the Sliter family and Paul Travis, executive director of the Flathead Land Trust, the input is meant to demonstrate community interest in the Somers Beach state park proposal in order to move the project to the next step of a long-involved process that has yet to begin in earnest.
After the April 8 deadline, comments and letters regarding the proposal will be forwarded to the Montana State Parks and Recreation Board, which will then determine if FWP should move forward with further consideration of the state park.
At that point, an environmental analysis would occur, including additional layers of public scoping.
“Our family’s long-term intention for this special property has been to find a solution that conserves the shoreline and offers safe public access,” Andrea Sliter Goudge said.
However, Sliter Goudge said as public interest in the site mounts, it’s become clear that a management plan needs to be set.
“We are not comfortable with the amount of public use happening on our property and are seeking an alternative that best meets both the objectives of our family and our community,” she said, adding that hundreds of people recreate on the property.
“This project has amazing potential to preserve and protect a special place and create new recreational access on one of our most cherished natural wonders,” Travis said. “We are hopeful that community members will be supportive of the project to create much-needed public access on Flathead Lake’s north shore by voicing their support.”
Details surrounding how a future park might look or be operated have not been proposed by FWP at this time, and the agency first needs the preliminary approval of the Montana State Parks and Recreation Board in order to consider the land for a future park. If the board grants approval, there will be a lengthy public process, including additional requests for public input and public comment periods to consider the details of a state park at the site, Travis said.
To date, public comment has been overwhelmingly positive and supportive of the project, although property owners adjacent to the access point have raised concerns.
“If this endeavor moves forward, public input will be extensive, and is required, as part of the process,” Sliter Goudge said. “This extensive public input process is one of the reasons our family is grateful for the possible interest by State Parks.”
The Somers Beach project would add significant public access to Flathead Lake, which is girded by long stretches of private land.
Although it is the largest freshwater lake in the western U.S., there are currently only 13 public access sites along its 185 miles of shoreline. The existing fishing access site west of Somers, a 2-acre parcel on a narrow strip along U.S. Highway 93, is overcrowded with a growing number of users launching boats and recreating. The neighboring boat ramp also used as a swimming area is typically filled to capacity with boat trailers parked along the highway.
“The space available at the current Somers access sites does not meet the demand for desired public use and poses significant safety concerns,” Travis said. “A new state park at Somers Beach would add much needed year-round public access to the north shore and prevent private development of the property.”
The new Somers Beach site would add public access to 106 acres (55 acres of land when the lake level is at full pool). Although much of the north shore is public land as part of the Flathead Lake Waterfowl Production Area, the WPA is closed to human use between March and July each year to protect migrating and nesting birds.
The project would also allow portions of an adjacent property owned by BNSF Railway that was formerly contaminated to potentially become part of the public access site. Cleanup of the former BNSF railroad tie treating facility at the location has been implemented under the direction of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which has suggested a recreation site as an appropriate and good future use of the property.
Letters of comment regarding the Somers Beach state park proposal should be written to the attention of Angie Grove, chair of the Montana State Parks and Recreation Board, and Martha Williams, director of MFWP, and submitted by April 8 via email at ProtectSomersBeach@gmail.com or by mail to Flathead Land Trust, P.O. Box 1913, Kalispell, 59903.