FWP Finalizes Development Plan at New Somers Beach State Park

While most of the 106-acre property on Flathead Lake will remain undeveloped, the agency’s plan includes day-use amenities and limited overnight accommodations

By Tristan Scott
Linda Yearous, a member of the Sliters family, walks out onto the sand with her husband Ryan Yearous and their children Arthur and Melody after a ribbon cutting ceremony for the opening of Somers Beach State Park on the north shore of Flathead Lake on May 12, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) has finalized development plans for Somers Beach State Park on the north shore of Flathead Lake, where visitors may soon indulge in limited overnight lodging at three rental cabins but no tent camping.

Recognizing the 106-acre site’s pristine state and abundance of natural resources, the completed planning document is a slight departure from the agency’s previous preferred blueprint for the new state park, which called for limited tent camping. The development will include day-use amenities, such as trails, picnic areas, and a hand launch area for boats, as well as overnight lodging opportunity with three rental cabins.

“Montana’s newest state park is in an area of high recreational demand, and is comprised of lakeshore, wetlands, floodplain, and uplands, and is situated between the federal Flathead Lake Waterfowl Production Area and the townsite of Somers,” according to FWP’s final modified environmental assessment (EA) released April 17. “The intent of developing recreational amenities is to guide and enhance use in a way that minimizes visitor impacts while conserving natural, cultural and recreational resources. Benefits include improved accessibility, opportunities for outdoor recreation, wildlife viewing and interpretive and educational programming.”

Somers Beach on the north shore of Flathead Lake as seen in April 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

FWP is also constructing vault latrines instead of flushing restrooms and will not build an entry station or natural playground. If costs exceed available funding, pegged at $2 million, the group picnic shelter and the hand launch may be excluded from construction and installed later. The agency will also enhance an additional 922 feet of park shoreline with an erosion control beach.

The 2021 Montana Legislature authorized some funding for the park, while public donations through the Montana State Parks Foundation and the Flathead Land Trust will offset additional costs.

The complete development plans are outlined in a final decision notice and environmental assessment published April 17 on the FWP website under https://fwp.mt.gov/news/public-notices.

FWP acquired the Somers Beach property in fall 2021 with plans to add it to Montana’s roster of state parks, a system whose popularity has grown rapidly, particularly at units on Flathead Lake, where public access is limited. The agency completed interim developments on an access road, parking lot and erosion control beach, but wanted the public’s input on how to proceed with the site’s development. In spring 2022, FWP launched a public planning process to help guide future use of the state park. A scoping survey collected nearly 1,300 individual responses with approximately 80% coming from the Flathead Valley. FWP also hosted in-person and virtual open houses that summer to build on information gained from the public survey. Input from the open houses and survey helped FWP staff develop the draft environmental assessment, according to the final EA.

“A majority of participants who participated in the survey preferred that the park be designated as day-use only,” the EA states. “The subsequent open house and virtual planning meetings rendered support for some type of overnight accommodation at the park. In both cases, those who wanted overnight accommodations expressed preferences for tent camping or small cabins.”

In January, FWP released a draft environmental assessment with three development alternatives, including a preferred alternative. FWP received 202 public comments during a 30-day period, and the agency’s responses to those comments are available to review in the final decision notice.

Somers Beach State Park on the northern shore of Flathead Lake on July 19, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Underscoring the development pressures bearing down on the area, FWP explained in the EA that it is “aware of a planned, yet to be officially proposed, large subdivision adjacent to the proposed SBSP.”

“The planned subdivision has the potential to impact water quality through stormwater runoff from replacement of natural vegetation with subdivision structures and parking lots,” the EA states. “Development of the planned subdivision would likely result in minor to moderate adverse impact to area wildlife and their habitats.” 

According to the Flathead County Planning and Zoning Office, two developments are in the nascent stages of the permitting process. The Steamboat Landing Subdivision property that was set for 178 lots in 2018, but which did not receive approval, has entered pre-application discussions about revising the layout. Meanwhile, developers have entered a pre-application phase on the Old Town Subdivision, a 124-lot, 32-acre subdivision north of Tiebucker Subdivision.

For decades, access to the popular lakefront property that is now Somers Beach State Park has been allowed through a handshake agreement with private landowners, the Sliter family, whose acreage spanned a half-mile of shoreline, and who for years had been eyeing plans to conserve the area while continuing to allow public access.

Many visitors are familiar with the site of the new state park due to the expansive sand beaches that emerge after Flathead Lake reaches low pool every year, when approximately 45 acres of parkland transform into exposed lakebed. The exposed lakebed is used by recreationists for hiking, mountain biking, skiing, and ice skating. During full pool the primary park use has been for walking, with most of the use originating from the parking lot. Visitors follow a pioneered trail to the lakeshore from there.

The site holds cultural significance to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, with particular importance to the Kootenai community.

FWP acknowledged that the development of visitor amenities could result in a minor short-term increase in noise during periods of peak use. While the property has historically seen heavy public use, the development of state park amenities may draw more visitors, the EA states.

“Noise levels associated with the interim amenities developed in 2022 have not resulted in complaints, and in fact may have provided some relief to neighbors by vastly reducing the amount of parking that occurs along Somers Road,” according to the EA. “The proposed action would enhance regulatory signage and on-site staff presence would serve to proactively mitigate noise.”

“Overall, this EA found that the proposed action of developing visitor amenities would provide a wide range of recreational, wildlife, and habitat benefits with mostly minor and some moderate adverse impacts. Impacts from increased use to neighboring properties would be mitigated by FWP assuming increased active management of the property,” the EA states. “Some existing issues, such as resource damage, trespass, noise at night, and pet and litter issues, are expected to improve under the proposed action with FWP’s increased presence.”

Learn more at https://fwp.mt.gov/stateparks/somers-beach.

Gulls on Somers Beach on the north shore of Flathead Lake on April 1, 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

REMINDER: A seasonal closure started March 1 along a large portion of the north shore of Flathead Lake between Bigfork and Somers to support migrating and nesting birds.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Flathead Lake Waterfowl Protection Area spans seven miles of shoreline along the north end of Flathead Lake. This property closes to public access annually March 1 through July 15 to reduce human disturbances during the breeding, nesting and brood-rearing period. This closure includes the open beaches along the shoreline of the WPA.

Public access to the north shore beach remains open at Somers Beach State Park and Osprey View property along Holt Drive near Bigfork. Parking is limited along Holt Drive. Access at both sites is restricted to state land and the section of beach that is state land. Beach closures remain in effect starting at the boundary of the federal WPA.

Dogs must be kept on a leash at Somers Beach State Park and Osprey View.

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