Parks at a Premium

Flathead Lake State Park was second-most visited Montana park through first half of 2020, with visitation spiking 30%; land managers seeking opportunities to increase public access

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

Montana State Parks recorded 1.4 million visitors from January through June of this year, marking a 25.4% increase compared with the same time period last year and underscoring the need for state land managers to secure additional recreational sites to keep up with demand.

For example, at Flathead Lake State Park, which comprises six units — Wayfarers, Yellow Bay and Finley Point on the east side of the lake, and West Shore, Big Arm and Wild Horse Island on the west side — Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) recorded 159,640 visits in the first six months of the year, up nearly 30% over the same period last year and making it the second most popular park in Montana, ranked behind Giant Springs State Park in Great Falls.

The increased visitation at Montana’s parks this year tracks with other ascending trends in outdoor recreation, which has gained popularity as Americans, beset with the social constraints of the pandemic, seek out fresh air and wide open spaces in greater numbers. But on Flathead Lake, which is the largest freshwater lake in the western U.S., the added pressure also highlights the relative dearth of public access sites.

There are currently only 13 public access sites along the approximately 185 miles of Flathead Lake shoreline, 89% of which (excluding islands) is girded by long stretches of private land.

To boost capacity and increase opportunities for public recreation, FWP has multiple proposals in various stages of development to add lakeshore access, through the creation of new parks, access points and conservation easements.

Most recently, FWP announced that it was moving forward on a proposal to develop a new fishing access site on 15 acres of undeveloped land east of Dayton along the western shore of Flathead Lake. The property, owned by the Montana Outdoor Legacy Foundation, would be developed in to the Montebello Fishing Access site, and would include an access road, parking area, boat launch, dock, vault latrine, signage, boundary fencing and a host campsite. The site would be open for day-use only.

“FWP continues to pursue opportunities to increase public access on Flathead Lake, where user numbers are increasing to levels above the capacity of existing FWP sites,” according to the Montebello proposal.

“Any additional public access opportunity on the largest natural freshwater lake west of the Mississippi River would be very popular,” the proposal continues.

The proposed site would also help ease pressure on other busy boat launches on Flathead Lake, while its proximity to Wild Horse Island makes it a desirable launching point. FWP officials emphasized that the popularity of Flathead Lake’s recreational fishery continues to grow, and in 2017 supported 42,195 angler days.

Flathead Lake is also popular with recreational (non-angling) boaters, including motorized and non-motorized watercraft. Shore-based activities such as picnicking, swimming, photography and wildlife viewing are also very popular along the shoreline.

Recreational activity on Flathead Lake generates a considerable amount of economic activity in nearby communities. According to Jan Stoddard of the Montana Office of Tourism and Business Development, Flathead Lake is one of Montana’s most important water recreation assets.

The Montebello Fishing Access Site proposal is part of a broader “Flathead Lake access package,” which includes the proposed acquisition of 106 acres of shoreline owned by the Sliter family near Somers for the development of a new state park.

Despite intense development pressure, the property remains undeveloped and would complement habitat protections already in place along the lakeshore, according to FWP and the Flathead Land Trust.

“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,” said Paul Travis, executive director of Flathead Land Trust, the nonprofit organization working to broker the conservation deal with FWP and the Sliter family.

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.

While visitation increased at nearly 80 percent of state parks across Montana, there were several parks that experienced a drop in visitation due to facility closures, as well as the lack of school field trips and group activities attributed to COVID-19.

Administrators recognize the psychological toll the pandemic is taking on Montanans, and say improving access to the Treasure State’s prized lakes and parklands is one way to enhance their quality of life.

“Montana is fortunate to have these opportunities and FWP is committed to making sure they are available for visitors across Montana, especially during a time of uncertainty,” Beth Shumate, division administrator for Montana State Parks, said. “The state park system provides incredible opportunities which can foster invaluable mental and physical health benefits.”

Read the complete report here.

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