Glacier Park

Glacier Park Residents Join Lawsuit to Oppose Illegal McDonald Creek Home Build

As briefing continues in a federal case brought by a California couple who built a home without a permit along a stream in Glacier National Park, the private landowners who grew up in the park are pitching their own defense

By Tristan Scott
A home under construction on private acreage along McDonald Creek near Apgar Village inside Glacier National Park. Courtesy Flathead Conservation District

For more than 63 years, Monica Jungster has lived and worked in Apgar Village in Glacier National Park, where she grew up 400 feet from the banks of lower McDonald Creek. The daughter of a World War II veteran who served in the 10th Mountain Division before moving to Montana, Jungster recalls how, in 1955, her parents purchased a postage stamp of property inside the park’s boundary and built the Montana House Regional Craft Shop, raising their family in the store’s rear living quarters.

Since then, floods and fires have reshaped the landscape around Apgar while a dramatic increase in visitation has brought on transformative shifts to the park’s management policies.

Meanwhile, Jungster has quietly withstood the changes, opting instead to safeguard her family’s original business mission and defend the pristine natural resources that for her are both a private birthright and a public privilege. After the wildland fires of 2003 nearly reduced Apgar Village to embers, Jungster replaced the store’s wood-shingle roof with one made of metal. The building’s trim is now a goldenrod color, and the sign is different. Still, not wanting to intrude on the rustic character of the neighborhood, Jungster has largely eschewed modifications, even as she’s accepted the changes around her.

But when a California couple, John and Stacey Ambler, built a three-story home on a 0.05-acre sliver of private property on the banks of Lower McDonald Creek, a stone’s throw from Apgar Village, Jungster and her neighbors decided it was a change they weren’t going to accept, and they grew determined to air their grievances.

“As all private landowners in Montana have certain rights of private property and the responsibilities that come with that, it was up to the Amblers to be responsible for what was required regarding their building project on private property on lower McDonald Creek,” Jungster said last November in comments to a state hearing examiner, who determined that the property owners had violated Montana’s preeminent streambed law when they built their home without a permit — a ruling the couple is challenging. “Public records indicate they were told by Glacier Park to follow county and state regulations. They did not.”

The hearing examiner, Laurie Zeller, a former bureau chief with the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) appointed by the Flathead Conservation District (FCD) to arbitrate the dispute, remanded the case back to the FCD, whose Board of Supervisors ruled that the couple must remove the home and remediate the streambed no later than April 1, 2024.

Instead, the Amblers filed lawsuits in state and federal courts, arguing that the FCD overstepped its authority by ordering the home’s removal. As the legal saga drags out into the second summer of peak visitation to the park, the unfinished home remains visible to onlookers from the Camas Road.

But for Jungster and other longtime residents, it’s more than a public nuisance; it’s an insult.

Eddie’s Cafe and Mercantile in Apgar Village in Glacier National Park on June 11, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Last month, Jungster and other residents joined the federal case the Amblers brought against the FCD as intervenors, both to support the FCD’s position as well as to represent their own unique views and experiences. Assembling as a group called Friends of Montana’s Streams and Rivers (FMSR), attorneys representing the residents say it was important that their own sets of unique interests are represented in a case that’s likely to proceed through the appellate courts.

“The decision to intervene was to give a voice to the residents who have slightly different interests than the Flathead Conservation District, which is interested in exercising its jurisdiction on the banks of one of the most pristine waterways in Montana,” Rob Farris-Olsen said in an interview. “These adjacent landowners, like Monica Jungster and other folks who have spent their entire lives working and playing in the area, have a unique perspective and they want to advocate for the protection of McDonald Creek, and to ensure Montana’s constitutional guarantee of a clean and healthful environment are met.”

Since late May, when U.S. Magistrate Kathleen DeSoto granted FMSR’s motion to intervene, a flurry of briefs and motions for summary judgment have laid out the legal strategies of both the defendants (FCD and FMSR) and of the plaintiffs (the Amblers).

According to their complaint, the Amblers are seeking to establish their right to have built their home on the banks of a perennially flowing stream without a permit to do so, which the FCD ruled is a violation of Montana’s Natural Streambed and Land Preservation Act (NSLPA) that governs private actions on public waterways. According to the Amblers, neither Flathead County nor Glacier National Park — the two entities they argue should have the final say in the matter — required any permits to begin construction on the property and connect the residence to the Apgar Village water and sewer system.

Following complaints from residents, however, the FCD conducted an onsite inspection in February 2023 and determined the Amblers violated the NSLPA by building on an immediate bank of McDonald Creek and excavating the streambank to create a pad for construction, all without obtaining the necessary 310 permit to do so.

West Glacier on July 2, 2014. After nearly seven decades of family ownership, Glacier Park, Inc. has purchased the business operations and 200 acres of adjacent land from the Lundgren family that provide a gateway to West Glacier and Apgar Village. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

The couple challenged the conservation district’s jurisdictional authority in the case and proceeded to what’s called a declaratory ruling process, which was overseen by Zeller, the retired DNRC bureau chief who is an expert in streambed permitting. Zeller’s final determination was that the streambed law applies to the Amblers and the FCD exercised proper enforcement authority when it ordered the structure be removed.

The case is unique given the project’s location inside Glacier National Park, which when established in 1910 trapped private tracts of land staked by homesteaders prior to the park’s existence. Originally totaling 13,000 acres, many of the homesteaders sold their property to the National Park Service a century ago, but some remain. Known as “inholding,” the bill establishing Glacier Park was explicit in its concession that landowners would retain “full use and enjoyment of their properties” and that “nothing herein contained shall affect any valid existing claim, location or entry under the land rules of the United States, or the rights of any such claimant.”

McDonald Creek as viewed from near Bird Woman Falls Overlook along Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park on April 24, 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

According to the response to the Amblers’ federal lawsuit by Camisha Sawtelle, the attorney representing the FCD, “The location of the Ambler property does not preempt enforcement of a state law that is entirely consistent with the purpose of the National Parks.”

“Plaintiffs seem to also assert that regulations of Glacier National Park do not apply, suggesting that development on a private inholding on the bank of an iconic stream in Glacier National Park is essentially unregulated,” according to a motion for summary judgment. “FCD refutes this unreasonable conclusion and asks this Court to grant their motion for summary judgment that the Act applies to the Ambler Property.”

The property at issue in the Amblers’ dispute was claimed by Charles Howes on May 21, 1908. The United States General Land Office granted the property to Howes in 1908 and it has remained in private ownership since. Therefore, Sawtelle wrote, the provisions of Glacier’s enabling statute “do not apply to the property at issue.”

For Jungster, the corner of Glacier National Park she’s spent her entire life occupying, it “is the world that park in-holders have the privilege to live, choose to and are responsible for the decisions we make when we are here.”

During the devastating Flathead Valley floods of 1964, she recalls watching lower McDonald Creek “flow backwards” into Lake McDonald, “taking out huge sections of the riverbank on the side that the Ambler house now sits.”

“A rental cabin floated down to the new Camas Bridge where the Park blasted it. Part of Mrs. Powell’s white house was hanging over where the riverbank had washed away. The old wood bridge that connected Apgar to the Grist Road homes was gone and Lake McDonald filled up to just under the second story of the Village Inn Motel,” Junger wrote in her statement to the hearing officer, describing the devastation. “As I walk along the creek now, I still see trees falling on that side of the creek and an open cut area eroded close to the Camas bridge. The 0.05 acres the Amblers own is likely all that is left of the private lot that had Mrs. Powell’s house hanging off the banks in 1964.”

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