Bridging the Funding Gap for Owen Sowerwine

Latest fundraising push seeks remaining funding to purchase a conservation easement on the 442-acre natural area along the Flathead and Stillwater rivers east of Kalispell

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

Located in the heart of one of the most complex sections of the Flathead River, amid a latticework of intertwined channels, islands, sloughs, wetlands and riparian forest, Owen Sowerwine borders more than a mile of the Flathead River, a mile of the Stillwater River and at least 1.3 miles of channels connecting the two rivers.

In recent years, the special recreational-use licenses guaranteeing public access and habitat protection to the area have been issued in two-year increments by the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC), casting uncertainty over the long-term future of Owen Sowerwine and prompting a local land trust to pitch a plan to furnish permanent protections on the 442-acre parcel, which is managed as State School Trust Land.

Last year, the Flathead Land Trust offered to purchase a conservation easement agreement on Owen Sowerwine, fulfilling DNRC’s monetary mission to the School Trust in exchange for its protection from development in perpetuity.

After an initial wave of public support, the nonprofit organization is looking to build on the momentum and engage the public in a matching program launched earlier this month.

Several donors have pledged a match of $100,000 to all new donations or pledges received by Flathead Land Trust or its partners between April 1 and July 31. The matching incentive was made possible by Molly Miller and Mark Jungerman, the Bibler Foundation and Alan and Sallie Gratch, as well as donors the Flathead Audubon and Flathead Lakers, according to Flathead Land Trust.

To date, more than half of the needed funding has been secured through grants and individual donations, according to Flathead Land Trust. However, the campaign must raise an additional $330,000 by the end of September to fund the purchase of the conservation easement.

Carol Bibler and Debbie Funk, who grew up exploring the area, encouraged residents to step up now to protect a beloved natural resource.

“Right now, we all have a fleeting opportunity to ensure that this area will remain natural forever,” Bibler and Funk stated in a press release distributed by the Flathead Land Trust. “If you want your children, grandchildren, and their children to experience the magical place that we did, and if you want this precious wildlife habitat to remain undisturbed, please join us in supporting the fundraising efforts to preserve the Owen Sowerwine.”

Placing the property into a conservation easement will expand protection of critical lands along the Flathead River corridor, according to advocates, adding to a network of more than 12,000 acres of conserved wetlands, riparian forests, fish and wildlife habitat, farmlands and recreational areas along the Flathead River.

Owen Sowerwine has long been recognized for its natural and community values, Katzman explained. 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 State School Trust, but required renegotiation whenever the licenses expired. The proposed conservation easement would replace the current license and ensure that the Owen Sowerwine would be managed for its natural habitat in perpetuity. 

To learn firsthand about Owen Sowerwine, several walking, birding and kayak tours of the property will be offered from May 7 to July 29. Contact Flathead Land Trust ([email protected]) for more information and to sign up for tours.

Donations can be made at flatheadlandtrust.org, flatheadaudubon.org, flatheadlakers.org, or by writing a check to Flathead Land Trust, PO Box 1913, Kalispell, MT 59903. Please make sure to indicate that your donation is for Owen Sowerwine.

For more information on the Owen Sowerwine Conservation Project, visit www.flatheadlandtrust.org.