When Cindy Horn came up to the podium, tears were already brimming in her eyes. Her voice quivered as she began to speak.
“We were walking on the river road decades ago when I simply pointed and said, ‘who owns this property?’” Horn said, addressing a crowd of 150 people gathered underneath a white marquee tent. “There’s just something special about it.”
Located on the flanks of Swan Hill, the 240-acre property that caught Horn’s attention was slated for development. Fast forward to now, this land nestled in the forest is instead accessible for public enjoyment, a success story for conservationists and an oasis for recreationists.
“A few years later, we bought it,” Horn continued. “Here we are today having decided to conserve this land forever.”
The crowd gathered at the Sept. 22 event was there to celebrate the opening of the Harrell Forest Community Trails, a network of over six miles of hiking and biking trails. After purchasing this property, the Horn family donated it to the Trust for Public Land (TPL), the nonprofit responsible for spearheading this conservation and trail project.
“This is an important gathering spot of Kootenai, Salish, and Kalispell people because of its nexus to the Swan and Flathead valleys and rivers and lakes,” TPL Northern Rockies Regional Director Dick Dolan said. “Those same attributes have made it a bustling village today and we’re proud to honor that long heritage and help add to the community.”
The trail itself snakes up and into the hills, diverging into multiple routes that overlook both the Flathead and Swan lakes. The population of Bigfork, where this trail is located, has quadrupled in the last 20 years. The project seeks to preserve this parcel of land as well as enable the growing community to enjoy the nature in its own backyard.
“All of the attention on the beauty and majesty of our area certainly has increased the urgency around our work,” Lucas Cain, project manager for TPL’s Northern Rockies Department, said. “It makes things challenging with rising land prices to be able to get conservation projects done. But we do know that there is more desire than ever from our community members to protect the lands that we cherish.”
The project is a collaboration between TPL, the Flathead Land Trust, and the Montana Land Reliance. For TPL, the ceremony to unveil this trail system had added significance because it was also the nonprofit’s 50th anniversary. In that time, TPL has protected 4 million acres of land, spearheaded 5,500 community-focused projects, and activated over $90 billion dollars in funding for open space parks and trails. Cain said this trail opening was a meaningful way to commemorate the organization’s milestone.
“This one really hits home on delivering on all of our missions: protecting the open space character of the area, allowing for recreational educational opportunities on the land, and really just connecting everyone to the outdoors, giving them that sense of ownership of something that can they can cherish and take care of into the future,” Cain said. “It fits in exactly to the mission of the Trust for Public Land, not only of the past 50 years, but also of the next 50 years.”
In addition to donations from community members, the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) Recreational Trails Program provided $100,000 to fund the planning and design work for the Harrell project. FWP’s Trail Stewardship Grant Program provided an additional $75,000 for the trail’s construction as well as development for the trailhead and parking area.
With the initiative complete, the Flathead Land Trust will serve as the primary long-term manager and steward of the land, working with the Montana Land Reliance to ensure the terms of the conservation and open space protection are abided by.
“I just want to underscore that this is no small undertaking,” Dolan said. “In fact, one of the boogeymans in the land business is long term-monitoring, stewarding and owning of land. It’s forever and we have the utmost confidence in the Flathead Land Trust.”
Paul Travis, Flathead Land Trust Executive Director, emphasized the importance of community involvement to effectively caring for the outdoors and managing the land moving forward.
“Conservation is one thing but having that connection in the community to be able to experience a property like this is truly special,” Travis said. It really does take a village to pull something like this off.”
Cain said that the Harrell project will be a model for TPL’s work going forward. This is especially relevant as the organization embarks on another initiative in the Flathead Valley – to double the size of Herron Park in Kalispell.
“It’s just been a fantastic example of collaboration amongst conservation groups and communities to really show that we can work together to deliver what the communities need,” Cain said. “In a time where there’s a lot of division and divisiveness, this is the type of project that brings us all together and really allows us to reflect and show what the priorities are.”
For Horn, whose maiden name is Cindy Harrell, the Harrell Forest Community Trails honors her family in a way that will live on for generations.
“To see my family name attached to this beautiful land for these hiking trails is clearly emotional and means a lot to me,” Horn said in her speech. “It gives me and my family great pleasure to think of all of those who enjoy this special place, this magical place, now and for all the years to come.”
Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.
Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.