Glacier Park

North Fork Land Purchase Preserves Habitat on Flanks of Glacier

Conservation acquisition in Polebridge preserves 10 acres along park’s western boundary, where development pressures run high

By Tristan Scott
The forest surrounding Larry Wilson’s cabin up the North Fork on Oct. 27, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Advocates of maintaining the North Fork Flathead River’s wild-and-scenic character celebrated a victory this month when the Flathead National Forest and Vital Ground Foundation brokered a deal to conserve 10 acres of open space and wildlife habitat in the shadow of Glacier National Park, where development pressure runs high.

Utilizing the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), the conservation acquisition, dubbed the “Glacier Gateway” project, maintains public access to one of the national park system’s crown jewels while protecting an important habitat corridor for grizzly bears, elk, wolverine and numerous other wildlife species, according to Flathead National Forest officials who helped negotiate the deal.

“We are fortunate to have partnered with Vital Ground on this conservation acquisition in an area of such high ecological importance,” Rob Davies, head of the Flathead National Forest’s Hungry Horse and Glacier View District, said. “It is a privilege to be able to manage this land for wildlife benefit, Wild and Scenic River values, and public use for generations to come.”

The 10-acre postage stamp of land running between the village of Polebridge and the park’s entrance station about a mile away was privately owned, bordering federal lands on multiple sides. Primary support for the project was derived from LWCF, a national program that dedicates royalty fees from offshore drilling to community conservation efforts, ranging from municipal parks to fishing access sites, as well as sprawling land conservation easements. Last year, the fund received bipartisan support and permanent funding from Congress as part of the Great American Outdoors Act.

A land trust based in western Montana, Vital Ground provided administrative and financial support for the Forest Service’s purchase, marking the latest habitat conservation project the nonprofit has completed in the North Fork in recent years.

Ryan Lutey, executive director of Vital Ground, said a campground and RV park had been among the proposals in the project area, which he said would be detrimental to fish and wildlife habitat while also obstructing the viewshed for visitors and residents.

The overarching goal of the land purchase, program officials said, is to help limit subdivision and dense development in a popular tourist area that also serves as a crucial habitat corridor between Glacier’s Livingston Range and the Whitefish Mountains to the west.

The most recent deal is part of Vital Ground’s “One Landscape Initiative,” which identifies and conserves key habitat linkages on private lands throughout the Northern Rockies region, helping to reconnect fragmented populations of grizzly bears and other wildlife.

Forming the western edge of Glacier National Park, the North Fork Flathead River is a recreation destination as well as a crossroads of wildlife habitat and rarefied ecosystems. More than 3 million visitors traveled to Glacier in 2019, many of them passing through the Polebridge area to hike, float, fish or view wildlife in and around the North Fork Flathead River Valley.

Beyond tourism pressure, Montana’s booming housing market poses an additional risk to open space and wildlife habitat, but land conservation projects like Glacier Gateway and waterway protections for the North Fork — such as its National Wild and Scenic designation and the North Fork Watershed Protection Act of 2014 — are helping maintain the area’s wild character.

“This is an outstanding opportunity for collaborative conservation that benefits both people and wildlife,” said Mitch Doherty, Vital Ground’s conservation manager. “With the support of the Flathead National Forest we are bringing more LWCF dollars to Montana to support a growing need for improved public land access and conservation of key wildlife habitat in the North Fork Valley.”

Additional support for the Glacier Gateway project came from Tourism Cares and numerous other individual donors, Doherty said.

Will Hammerquist, owner of the Polebridge Mercantile and a fierce advocate of protecting the region’s natural character, said the conservation acquisition preserves a unique entrance to the park that has experienced a dramatic surge in popularity and use.

“It’s a nice addition between the Merc and the historic district and ranger station, where we have seen development pressure ramp up,” Hammerquist said. “This is a good example of some of the smaller projects LWCF can help fund, and what the program can do to improve the quality of life of regular community members.”

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