On the eastern edge of Kalispell’s city limits sits a large tract of riparian land offering visitors opportunities to escape the city and explore one of the state’s most important sanctuaries for birds, or peer through groves of cottonwood trees and meander around a pristine waterfront. The wetland habitat, which includes braided channels of the Flathead and Stillwater rivers, is known as the Owen Sowerwine Natural Area, a publicly accessible wildlife haven long considered one of the Flathead Valley’s conservation gems.
Now, the Owen Sowerwine is set to receive permanent protection following unanimous approval by the Montana State Board of Land Commissioners on Monday, when a coalition of local nonprofits received permission to purchase the 442-acre parcel of State School Trust Land and place it under a conservation easement.
“We’re very excited to have received approval from the Land Board to complete the purchased conservation easement to permanently protect Owen Sowerwine,” Paul Travis, executive director of the Flathead Land Trust (FLT), said in a press release. “This is an important step forward for the project and we are grateful. We can now move forward to close on this incredible project and hope to do so early in 2024.”
As state trust land administered by the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC), the Owen Sowerwine area is intended to generate revenue for Montana’s public schools. To fulfill the revenue directive of state trust land, DNRC can lease its lands for a variety of revenue-generating purposes, including as rental cabin sites, residential purposes, grazing, timber sales or commercial use. But local stakeholders say the nature of the Owen Sowerwine property, which sits almost entirely within the flood plain, limits development opportunities and makes it a prime site for conservation.
Over the last 50 years, various short-term lease agreements held by Montana Audubon, the Flathead County Parks Department and the Flathead Audubon Society have allowed the property to be managed in its natural state, but the protections were never permanent.
More recently, however, the Flathead Land Trust, along with the Flathead Audubon Society and the Flathead Lakers, have endeavored to raise the funds to purchase a permanent easement on the property to retain the conservation-minded management practices and public access to the land. The coalition of nonprofits reached the goal of raising $1.05 million, which included a grant from the Whitefish Community Foundation, and generous donations from Molly Miller and Mark Jungerman, the Bibler Foundation, Alan and Sallie Gratch and Jim and Lisa Stack. The revenue will funnel into the state’s K-12 education funds, fulfilling the the school trust mission.
“[The fundraising] really emphasizes how much Flathead Valley residents care about Owen Sowerwine and wish for it to stay intact for future generations,” Travis told the land board commissioners during their Dec. 18 meeting. “This place really means a lot to the people of Kalispell. It’s truly a beloved place that’s been stewarded for many years by dedicated volunteers.”
The five-member Land Board, which includes the state’s five top elected officials, heard public comment from members of the Flathead Audubon Society, the Montana Audubon and the Montana Association of Land Trusts who all spoke in favor of the easement.
“This is one of 42 important bird areas identified by the state Audubon. There’s been more than 150 bird species documented here,” said Montana Audubon Executive Director Larry Berrin.
The vote by the Land Board — which includes 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 — was unanimous, though Knudsen said he generally opposes conservation easements. The sale will be finalized in early 2024.
The Owen Sowerwine is named after a dedicated conservationist who initially sought to designate the area as a Natural Area under the Natura Areas Act of 1974. While those efforts were ultimately unsuccessful, the property has carried his name ever since, and will continue to do so in perpetuity.
Travis previously told the Beacon that visitors to the area are unlikely to notice any differences, as Flathead Land Trust will continue managing Owen Sowerwine 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.
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