Giving Back to Owen Sowerwine

Through the “Flathead River in Paint” online art auction and GivingTuesday, local organizations are raising money to support a conservation easement near the confluence of the Flathead and Stillwater rivers

By Tristan Scott
Swollen channels of the the Flathead River as seen from above Leisure Island Park in Kalispell on June 9, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

As the Flathead Land Trust observes a 20-year milestone of stewardship and conservation along the Flathead River and north shore of Flathead Lake, the nonprofit organization has set its sights on a fundraising effort that would permanently protect the Owen Sowerwine Natural Area, an ecological wonderland located near the confluence of the Flathead and Stillwater rivers not far from Kalispell’s city center.

The 442-acre swatch of undeveloped wetland has for decades provided a veritable wildlife haven for binoculars-toting birders, as well as an ecological time capsule for paddlers exploring the vestiges of a wild river corridor. It’s even served as artistic inspiration as plein-air painters take up residency along its banks, rendering the riverine landscape’s braided channels in oil and acrylic on a blank canvas.

Likewise, the nonprofit Land Trust, in concert with the Flathead Lakers and Flathead Audubon Society, has begun working to crystallize a permanent picture of what Owen Sowerwine will look like in the decades to come, in hopes that its key characteristics will remain untouched.

To do so, the group is joining with its partners to drum up public support through a local plein-air art auction while also encouraging members of the public to donate as part of the worldwide GivingTuesday event that supports causes across the globe.

The “Flathead River in Paint” online auction is already live and will remain open to bids until midnight on Dec. 7. The paintings up for auction were completed by 14 artists in plein air on lands conserved along the river and lake and are on display at Modern Fine Art in Kalispell. Half the proceeds from the paintings will go to the artists and half to the funding needed to purchase a conservation easement on Owen Sowerwine. 

A mosaic of artistic renderings depicting protected lands along the Flathead River and north shore of Flathead Lake, which are part of an online auction to support permanent protection of the Owen Sowerwine Natural Area. Image courtesy of Flathead Land Trust

Visit flatheadlandtrust.org to learn how to bid on the paintings and for more information on the Owen Sowerwine project. To view the paintings online and to bid directly, visit: auctria.events/FlatheadRiverInPaint. 

Meanwhile, the Flathead Lakers is inspiring generosity by encouraging donations to the Owen Sowerwine Natural Area this GivingTuesday, which occurs Nov. 29. The proposed conservation easement, which is owned by the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC), would generate income for schools as well as ensure the land’s natural values continue to be protected and open to the public for conservation education, bird-watching, fishing, walking and hunting.

The overall project will cost approximately $775,000 and the Flathead Lakers have committed to raising $70,000 to contribute to the project.

“The Owen Sowerwine natural area is a filter for the water that comes into Flathead Lake,” said Kate Sheridan, executive director of the Flathead Lakers. “A healthy, protected ecosystem upstream is integral to Flathead Lake’s viability – both environmentally and for our quality of life.”

Anyone interested in joining the Flathead Lakers’ Giving Tuesday initiative can visit: givebutter.com/flatheadlakersgivingtuesday22

Owen Sowerwine has long been recognized for its natural and community values, Sheridan said. In the 1970s, local citizens tried to get the area protected under the Natural Areas Act of 1974; however, the designation was never approved. For the past 40 years, leases and licenses held by Flathead County, Montana Audubon and the Flathead Audubon Society have allowed the area to be managed for its natural habitat. Fees associated with the leases and licenses were paid to compensate the DNRC’s State School Trust, but required renegotiation whenever the licenses expired. 

The “Flathead River in Paint” event began this summer with each artist painting a different part of the river ecosystem that has been conserved by landowners and a collaborative group called the “Flathead River to Lake Initiative,” whose partners have been working together since 2002 to help conserve critical lands along 50 miles of the Flathead River and north shore of Flathead Lake — lands the conservation stewards say are critical to preserving the Flathead Valley’s wildlife habitat, its rich farmland and outstanding recreational opportunities.

Artists painted portions of the river ecosystem on lands conserved by the Flathead Land Trust, Montana Land Reliance, The Nature Conservancy, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Artists participating in the “Flathead River in Paint” event include local artists Susan Guthrie, Tabby Ivy, Gini Ogle, Therese Ely, Francesca Droll, Karen Leigh, Rob Akey, Jeff Manion, Brandon Wiese, Mark Ogle, Tom Saubert, and Haakon Ensign along with Denise Gilroy of Idaho and Wendy Hale of Massachusetts.

The event will kick off fundraising for the Owen Sowerwine project that would protect 442 acres in one of the most complex sections of the Flathead River with islands, intertwined channels with the Stillwater River, cottonwood forest, and wetlands just east of Kalispell. Owen Sowerwine borders a mile of the Stillwater River, over a mile of the Flathead River, and 1.3 miles of braided channels connecting the two rivers. 

“This proposal recently received a lot of positive support from the public through a scoping process with DNRC,” according to the Flathead Land Trust. “Because of this public support, Flathead Land Trust and its partners including the Flathead Audubon Society and the Flathead Lakers are beginning to fundraise in earnest for Owen Sowerwine as they need to raise an estimated $775,000 to complete this important conservation project. Two large funders have committed to providing a third of the needed funding and the partners have until September 2023 to raise the remainder.”

For more details about the Owen Sowerwine conservation project, please visit: https://www.flatheadlandtrust.org/conserve-owen-sowerwine/

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