Acknowledging the need to promote both conservation and public access on Flathead Lake, the Montana Land Board on Dec. 21 unanimously approved the state’s proposal to acquire two new parcels — one that land managers hope will lead to the creation of the Somers Beach State Park and the other to the Montebello Fishing Access Site.
The proposed sites would improve access to Flathead Lake, which is girded by private development and currently has only 13 public access sites along its 180 miles of shoreline, 89% of which (excluding islands) is flanked by long stretches of private land, leading to increased congestion at the existing sites.
The proposal on Flathead Lake’s north shore east of Somers would codify access to a popular half-mile, 106-acre sandy expanse that has long conducted through a handshake agreement with its owners. Under the proposal, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) would acquire the land for the creation of a state park, and as a way to permanently conserve wildlife habitat while continuing to allow public recreation.
The Sliter family that owns the property began eyeing plans to protect the area earlier this year, and is working in concert with FWP and the nonprofit Flathead Land Trust in an effort to finalize the deal, which has gained broad support.
FWP is also seeking to acquire 14.89 acres of property one mile east of Dayton along the western shore of Flathead Lake. That property is owned by Montana’s Outdoor Legacy Foundation and would be developed into Montebello Fishing Access Site and include an access road, parking area, boat launch, dock, vault latrine, signage, boundary fencing, and host campsite. The site would be open for day-use only, but acquisition of the property by FWP would ensure future public access to this property as well as Flathead Lake.
FWP will next ask the state Legislature for spending authority to close on both properties during the upcoming session.
Both proposals were 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.
This year, 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 — 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.
The projects have gained support from conservation organizations, sportsmen groups and a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers who all stress the need to improve and preserve access to Flathead Lake.
“As the Flathead Valley continues to grow in population, coupled with increasing tourism to the area, and a continually developing private shoreline, providing public access to the lake is increasingly critical,” according to a letter of support to the Land Board from the Montana Chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. “The addition of a new fishing access site and state park would help relieve pressure and crowding on existing access points on a lake that sees more than 40,000 angler days per year.”