Hobbling along on a pair of crutches, Flathead Land Trust Executive Director Paul Travis examined a 3-foot wide line of dirt that stretched around the corner of Swan Hill northeast of Bigfork. Travis recently broke his ankle on a trail run, but that wasn’t about to keep him from viewing the Flathead Valley’s newest single-track addition.
This week, heavy machinery broke ground on a 236-acre parcel of undeveloped land known as the Harrell Forest Project. Located just a half-mile from town along Bigfork Stage Road, the project will add more than six miles of hiking and biking trails to the county’s extensive recreation system and 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 Travis.
“We really wanted to make this a trail system that can be enjoyed by all people, no matter how fit they are,” Travis said, gesturing to the preliminary cut of new trail. “The grades are 8% or less throughout, the trail is wide and built for adaptive cycles, and it really makes this pristine piece of forest accessible to everyone.”
The Bigfork Harrel Forest project is a collaboration between the nonprofit Flathead Land Trust, the Trust for Public Land and the Montana Land Reliance. When the previous owners were looking for a way to conserve the land for the public, they donated it to the Trust for Public Land, a national organization, who then sought out Flathead Land Trust as a local partner.
The project is unique because it is the first time Flathead Land Trust has owned a property outright. The organization is usually involved in land deals as an intermediary, acquiring land to protect it from development but then turning it over to public agencies. In this instance, the Harrell property is surrounded by private land, and it made more sense for Flathead Land Trust to retain ownership.
“It will be a unique situation for us because as the owners we have complete control of how we want to manage it and build out the trails,” Travis said, drawing contrast to Herron Park or the Whitefish Trial where organizations have to work with agency partners. “We’re excited about what this means, but it’s certainly a huge step up as far as responsibility goes.”
The Bigfork community has been a big part of the development plan from the beginning, Travis said, with meetings going back to 2017 to hash out what locals wanted for expanded recreation opportunities. The Harrell Forest Project fits into a greater vision of the Bigfork Recreation Connection Action Plan, which maps out priorities for outdoor infrastructure and maintenance in the area.
To get started on the trail building, the project partners secured funding through two state-administered grants, as well as from donors during the 2022 Whitefish Community Foundation’s Great Fish Community Challenge.
Forestoration, Inc, of Whitefish, designed the initial 4.5-mile stretch of single track and Montana Made Trails is performing the trail building. The trails were designed with adaptive-use in mind in cooperation with DREAM Adaptive Recreation, which pre-tested stretches of single track using three-wheeled adaptive mountain bikes. The trail system will be closed to motorized vehicles and horses.
The trailhead located off Bigfork Stage Road will feature a 23-space gravel parking lot, vault toilet and kiosk with a trail map.
“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 in a statement. “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 undeveloped property has a long, interesting history, starting as an original piece of the homestead where Eva Gates Preserves were first created and sold. The property passed through several different owners including the Knievel family, of Evel Knievel fame, according to Flathead Land Trust, before Alan Horn and Cindy Harrell-Horn donated the land to the Trust for Public Land, with the goal of providing permanent public access.
The intention for the property has always been conservation. Another previous owner, Jack Whitney, placed the southern portion of the land into a conservation easement in the early 2000s when a northern section of the acreage was slated to become a 17-home subdivision, a project that was ultimately abandoned. The Trust for Public Land sought to turn the property to local management and reached a deal with the Flathead Land Trust. At the end of 2022, the ownership transfer was completed and, in collaboration with the Montana Land Reliance, the entire parcel is now protected from development as part of a conservation easement.
“We spelled out some fairly restrictive terms in the conservation easement to really secure this as open space for the public to enjoy in perpetuity. This isn’t just a trails project, it’s really a forest project,” Travis said. “It’s going to be a natural trail system. That’s what the people want, and we’re excited to be able to provide exactly that.”
The Bigfork Harrell Forest trail system will be open to the public this fall.
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