For decades, access to a half-mile stretch of Flathead Lake shoreline east of Somers has been conducted through a handshake agreement with its owners, the Sliter family, which has been eying plans to protect the area from development and conserve wildlife habitat while continuing to allow public recreation.
In an effort to promote both conservation and public access along the north shore of Flathead Lake, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) is proposing to acquire 106 acres of shoreline for the creation of a new state park, working in concert with the Sliter family and the Flathead Land Trust.
The property remains undeveloped and would complement habitat protections already in place along the lakeshore, according to the agency and its partner stakeholders, providing a rare chance to ensure more public access to Flathead Lake, which currently has less than 20 public access points along its 185 miles of shoreline, all of which are heavily used by residents and tourists alike.
The proposal was prompted by increasing public demand for opportunities to recreate on or near the lake, while state, city, and county parks, as well as Fishing Access Sites, are at or above capacity during much of the year, according to FWP officials. Seeing the need for more recreational access, multiple entities have been working together to add the proposed Somers Beach property to the Montana State Park System.
A final appraisal of the property is scheduled to occur in September, and FWP is seeking public input on the proposal until Sept. 12, 2020.
While details about allowed uses still need to be hammered out, the project would be funded through a pending Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) grant along with required matches from the Parks Earned Revenue or General License Fund.
The site would be suitable for a variety of recreational offerings and amenities, such as trails, hand-launch boat access, benches, picnic tables, restrooms, waterfowl viewing, educational vignettes and more.
The Flathead Land Trust solicited public input on the initial acquisition last spring, and in response several hundred people wrote emails and letters expressing various levels of interest, support and concern. Those letters were presented to the Montana State Parks Board in April to show community support and encourage the parks board to move forward with further consideration of the project. The board voted to do so, which initiated this next phase of the project, including the preparation of the draft environmental assessment and a formal public commenting process. Copies of those letters are included in the draft EA.
“For decades, our family has been working towards a vision of formal public access at Somers Beach,” according to a statement from Andrew Sliter. “This beautiful place on Flathead Lake has been enjoyed by residents and visitors for generations. We couldn’t be more excited about the collaboration with FWP and Montana State Parks on this proposal.”
The exact nature and location of amenities and hours of operation have not yet been determined, and extensive scoping and public comment will determine the future development of the park through a separate assessment. As a result, FWP has not determined whether the site would include an overnight component or provide day-use only. FWP recognizes site management and staffing of the site will be critical to addressing initial concerns about the proposed park.
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.
“In order to protect this special place from future private development, conserve the wetlands and bird habitat, and secure much needed new public access on Flathead Lake, a state park offers our best opportunity to do so,” Paul Travis, executive director of Flathead Land Trust, said. “Flathead Land Trust has been committed to working towards a conservation and public access outcome with the Sliter family on this beautiful property for over a decade now, and to see this come one big step towards fruition is extremely gratifying.”
The public comment period for the draft EA will extend for 30 days beginning Aug. 14. Written comments will be accepted until 5 p.m., Sept. 12, 2020, and can be mailed to: Somers Beach Acquisition EA; Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks; 490 N. Meridian Road; Kalispell, MT 59901 or sent by email to: Stevie Burton at Stevie.Burton@mt.gov.
Copies of this EA will be available for public review at FWP Region One headquarters in Kalispell; the Montana State Library in Helena; and on the FWP web site (http://fwp.mt.gov) under Public Notices.