Support Grows for Owen Sowerwine Conservation Easement

Flathead County commissioners have formalized their support for a local land trust's efforts to permanently protect a natural area along the Flathead River in Kalispell

By Micah Drew
Channels of the Flathead River as seen from above Leisure Island Park in Kalispell on June 9, 2020. The Owen Sowerwine natural area can be seen to the north of the cleared stretch of land. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The Flathead County Commissioners at their Oct. 26 meeting signed on to a letter supporting the purchase of a conservation easement on State School Trust Land east of Kalispell, known as the Owen Sowerwine. The letter is further indication of the broad support the Flathead Land Trust has garnered in its effort to permanently protect the 442-acre property.

“We’re always happy to get support letters from the commissioners, especially as this has to go through the state process,” Paul Travis, executive director of the Flathead Land Trust (FLT), said. “All of the responses we’ve had to this conservation easement have been really positive. It’s one of those projects that once you hear what it’s about, it’s hard not to support it.”

The Owen Sowerwine is an ecologically diverse habitat along the braided banks of the Flathead and Stillwater rivers. A trail network is accessible from Treasure Lane and is popular among hikers and birders. The Montana Audubon has designated the area as an Important Bird Area, critical to avian conservation.

Going back to the 1970s, efforts have been underway to obtain permanent protections for the property, including by dedicated conservationist Owen Sowerwine who sought to designate the area as a Natural Area under the Natural Areas Act of 1974. While ultimately unsuccessful, the area carries his name in recognition for the efforts.

Montana State Trust Land known as the Owen Sowerwine shown highlighted in blue near Kalispell on this map from Montana Cadastral.

As state trust land administered by the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC), the Owen Sowerwine is intended to generate revenue for Montana’s public schools. To fulfill the revenue directive of state trust land, DNRC could lease the land for a variety of purposes, including to be developed for cabin sites, residential purposes, grazing, timber sales or commercial use.

Over the last 50 years, various lease agreements held by Montana Audubon, Flathead County and the Flathead Audubon Society have allowed the area to be managed in its natural state, but the protections aren’t permanent.

Now, a coalition of nonprofit groups including the FLT, Flathead Audubon Society, Flathead Lakers and other River to Lake Initiative partners is working to purchase a conservation easement on the property which would conserve it in perpetuity.

“Essentially, nothing would change. We’ll pay cash for the easement and that will provide funding for schools, while continuing the current management plan for the area,” Travis said. “It’s a win everywhere.”

The property was recently appraised for $1.05 million, according to FLT land protection specialist Laura Katzman, and the coalition has fundraised nearly $900,000, including a grant from the Whitefish Community Foundation and generous donations from Molly Miller and Mark Jungerman, the Bibler Foundation and Alan and Sallie Gratch.

Should the easement go through, Travis said visitors to the area are unlikely to notice any differences as the Owen Sowerwine will continue to be managed as a natural area. Any future improvements, including new trails or improved parking areas, will be subject to environmental analysis under the Montana Environmental Protection Act and approval by the land board.  

Raising funds for the purchase and garnering support from local elected officials is only part of the process to actually get the conservation easement in place, however.

The Montana State Board of Land Commissioners have the final say in how state trust lands are managed. The board is made up of the state’s five highest elected officials — Gov. Greg Gianforte, Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen, Attorney General Austin Knudsen, Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen, and Commissioner of Securities and Insurance Troy Downing.

The Owen Sowerwine conservation easement is set to be discussed at the land board’s Dec. 18 meeting. If the purchase is approved, the purchase will be closed in early 2024.

“This is really a great example of what working together and having a lot of community support can do,” Katzman said. “We’re all united working to protect a community gem. Future generations will really be able to enjoy something that’s rare — a natural place, close to a city. The birds and wildlife will benefit as this kind of habitat in the valley bottom critical to their survival becomes more rare.”