Columbia Falls Veterans Cemetery Bill Passes House

Introduced by Rep. Braxton Mitchell, the measure will establish the state’s fourth veteran’s cemetery adjacent to the Montana Veterans Home

By Micah Drew
An in-camera double exposure blends the Flathead County Veterans Memorial from downtown Kalispell with a large American flag. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

On Nov. 10 the Montana House of Representatives voted unanimously to support a bill to create a State Veteran’s Cemetery in Columbia Falls. House Bill 81 was requested by the Montana Department of Military Affairs and brought forward by Rep. Braxton Mitchell, (R-Columbia Falls), and would designate funding in the state’s budget for a new cemetery adjacent to the State Veteran’s Home.

“This measure will cement and honor the legacy of the men and women who have fought for our freedoms,” Mitchell said during testimony on the House floor.

Montana currently has three veteran’s cemeteries at Fort Harrison in Lewis and Clark County, in Missoula and in Miles City. The Columbia Falls cemetery will serve veterans in nine counties: Flathead, Glacier, Toole, Pondera, Lake, Teton, Lincoln, Sanders and Liberty.

During a hearing before the House State Administration Committee, Mitchell said the cemetery construction will be fully funded by a national Veteran’s Affairs grant, while operational and maintenance costs of roughly $160,000 per year would include the salaries of a full-time groundskeeper and cemetery manager. According to the bill’s fiscal note, the funding would come from the state’s marijuana tax revenue.

According to the latest data from the U.S. Census Bureau, Montana is home to 84,430 veterans, roughly 20% of whom live within the nine northwest counties of the state. Flathead County alone has an estimated 8,516 veterans.

Many members of the armed forces spoke in favor of the bill during the committee hearing, including Duane Cunningham, American Legion Department of Montana Adjutant.

“Montana has citizens that step up to the plate and defend the freedoms we all have,” Cunningham said. “We’ve all seen veteran’s cemeteries with flags flying, how solemn that is and what it means in the hearts of those who see that. This cemetery will allow us to continue the tradition that caring for Montana’s veterans does not stop when they pass.”

The state owns 150 acres of land adjacent to the State Veteran’s Home in Columbia Falls and Kelly Ackerman, administrator of the Montana Veterans Affairs Division, said enough land would be initially developed to last a minimum of 20 years, with the possibility to expand to “three times that.” She added that, as one of the state’s fastest growing areas, the Flathead Valley was identified in 2021 as a location to expand the state’s veteran’s cemeteries.

“These Veterans deserve everything for their sacrifices,” Mitchell said after the bill passed the House. “It’s a great day for Flathead County, Northwest Montana, and Montana as a whole.”

If HB 81 passes the senate and is signed into law, construction is anticipated to begin in 2024.