Swan Conservation Collaboration Yields New Trails, Wards Off Development

Trust for Public Land, Flathead Land Trust and Montana Land Reliance partner to preserve open space, build four miles of new community trails in Bigfork

By Tristan Scott
Fall colors along the Swan River on Oct. 10, 2014. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

A new conservation partnership near Bigfork will protect 236 acres of forestland and open space while adding four miles of new community trails tracking along the Swan Mountain Range.

Located on the flanks of Swan Hill a short distance from downtown Bigfork, the protected land, once poised for development of 17 new residential lots, will instead offer “unfettered views of Flathead Lake and the Swan Range while providing public access to extraordinary front county recreational opportunities for the community of Bigfork,” according to a media release from several nonprofit conservation groups who partnered on the new project. The open space will offer protection and landscape connectivity for wildlife species such as whitetail deer, turkey, and black bear, the release states.   

The project was born of a collaboration between the Trust for Public Land, Flathead Land Trust and The Montana Land Reliance, which formed a partnership to create new community trails on a system that has seen an increase in recreational uses while permanently protecting 236 acres of forestland in Bigfork’s backyard.   

“This new community asset will not only provide residents with additional outdoor opportunities close to home, but it will also allow for continued forest health management to reduce the risk of wildfire threats which have become so prevalent in our region,” Lucas Cain, a project manager with The Trust for Public Land, said. “The Trust for Public Land is honored and grateful to be part of this incredible opportunity of safeguarding access to the outdoors for both current and future generations.”   

The new trail system, though not officially open to the public until the project is complete, will complement existing trails such as Swan River Nature Trail that have become increasingly crowded due to an uptick in usage during the COVID-19 pandemic, Cain said. Project planning will continue to take place, along with community information and involvement opportunities over the coming months. 

Located a few blocks from Electric Avenue in downtown Bigfork, the Swan River Nature Trail saunters along a century-old path through a forest of fir and pine stands, tracing the ravenous ripples of the Wild Mile into the Swan Valley. The two-mile route, one of the original gateways into the village on the bay, was established in 1914 as the main road from the foothills of the Swan Range to the northeast shore of Flathead Lake.

For years, stakeholders and community groups in Bigfork have been working toward expanding the recreation trail network in and around town, with the goal of eventually creating a set of trail loops that would connect with existing and future trails on the north and south sides of the Swan River and tie into Sliter Park, downtown Bigfork and other nearby trails.

“Flathead Land Trust is proud to be partnering on this exciting project which will serve the community of Bigfork and the Flathead Valley with a recreational amenity right next to town and conserve an important piece of open space for future generations to enjoy,” according to Paul Travis, executive director of the Flathead Land Trust. “We look forward to engaging with the community as we work towards providing much needed front country recreation on this property that otherwise could have been lost to subdivision and development.” 

While The Trust for Public Land is currently the property owner, having received it from the Alan and Cindy Horn family, long-term ownership and management will transfer to the Flathead Land Trust, with Montana Land Reliance holding the conservation easement. 

In a press release, the project partners thanked the Alan and Cindy Horn family for its generosity and vision in making this community project possible.  

“We have many wonderful memories of our time in Bigfork and the Flathead Valley and are very pleased to have been able to contribute this beautiful property to the community,” according to a prepared statement from the Horn family. “We want to thank Mark Schiltz of The Montana Land Reliance and Diane Conradi of The Montana Access Project for their vision, Jack and Ursula Whitney, whose memories and love for their land inspired us, and Jim Taylor for helping bring it all together.”  

In 2017, the Horn family also donated more than 1,000 acres of forested land tracking along the Stillwater River near Olney, where an easement allowed F.H. Stoltze Land and Lumber Company to harvest timber from the parcel while staving off development pressure.

The support from the local community-based Flathead Land Trust has also been critical in bringing the conservation projects to fruition on complex checkerboards of land.

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