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Future management of Owen Sowerwine natural area uncertain

by KIANNA GARDNER
Daily Inter Lake | April 26, 2020 1:00 AM

Montana Audubon and the organization’s local Flathead Valley chapter are working with several organizations and state agencies to secure a long-term management plan for the popular Owen Sowerwine Natural Area after a 20-year license agreement that allowed the Flathead Audubon Society to manage the parcel recently expired.

The 442-acre site on the east side of Kalispell is owned by the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. Two decades ago, the state and Montana Audubon entered into a license agreement — based on property values at the time — that allowed the area to be locally managed by the Flathead Audubon chapter.

That agreement expired in February and now the parties are collectively working toward a permanent solution. And according to Flathead Audubon Society President Gael Bissell, until that solution is reached, the organization and the DNRC have entered into a temporary two-year agreement that essentially extends the recently expired one, but with an added cost.

Under this plan, Montana Audubon and the Flathead Audubon Society are co-licensing the property for $2,000 per year and the local chapter is able to continue day-to-day management of the site. However, Bissell said the organizations will not be able to pay the agreed upon amount for much longer than two years.

“This temporary plan is our short-term agreement that gives us more time to work toward a long-term solution for the area that works for the Audubon society and for the state,” Bissell said. “This issue has been placed on the back burner a number of times, but it has now become a major priority for all of us.”

A RECENT newsletter from the Flathead Audubon Society says when discussions surrounding the expiration of the 20-year license ramped up last fall, “it became apparent that securing a similar license arrangement would not have been feasible for both our organizations given current land values. Therefore, DNRC informed us that the type, length, and cost of the next agreement would need to be renegotiated.”

Although Bissell couldn’t recall the exact dollar figure on the newly appraised Owen Sowerwine area, she said lease prices are expected to be exorbitantly higher than they were during the 20-year agreement. But still, the DNRC is seeking a permanent solution in which the school land trust — a fund that supports education in Montana — would be fully reimbursed for the value of the acreage in exchange for some type of disposition and protection of the land.

According to Kay Mitchell, co-chairperson for the Owen Sowerwine Natural Area Committee, the DNRC’s rules and policies “follow a very strict adherence to securing the highest and best dollar value for their properties,” which can put nonprofit organizations at a disadvantage.

She said it is unrealistic for Flathead Audubon to purchase the parcel at the appraised price, emphasizing the local nonprofit is unable to “play in the half-million dollar arena.”

Although the DNRC does commonly work with organizations and agencies to secure long-term management plans for recreation areas — as Bissell said they are now with Owen Sowerwine — the department will occasionally sell lands to other businesses, organizers or individuals who can afford to pay top-dollar.

“Please note that DNRC is strongly emphasizing the importance of coming up with a longer-term solution in a timely fashion,” the Audubon newsletter states. “If we cannot find a permanent funding or a mechanism to protect OSNA at the end of the next two years, the license could expire in early 2022.”

BISSELL SAID a handful of suggestions have been brought to the table, including conservation easements, turning the parcel into a state park and others. However, none of these ideas have gained significant traction.

Regardless, she said it is “imperative” Owen Sowerwine remains safe from development and open for public use. She said loss of the natural area would be a major step backward from conservation efforts that date back decades.

“This is part of a whole series of group efforts that have occurred in the Flathead River since the 1990s,” Bissell said. “It’s not just about protecting this part, it’s about protecting the entire floodplain and river and lake and the wildlife that live there.”

Dennis Olson, a conservation educator with the Flathead Audubon Society, said the area is a rare river-bottom biome that is part of a natural north-south migration corridor that is heavy with migratory bird species in the spring and fall. Because of these details, Owen Sowerwine has been designated an Audubon Important Bird Area.

“The other thing that makes it a real gem is that it is 420-some acres of wild area right in the city limits of Kalispell,” Olson said.

He said although Flathead Audubon organizes various field trips for bird and other nature education efforts, the group “takes the natural area designation seriously and views OSNA as primarily a wild area that we won’t over-compromise by promoting human use.”

The area was first listed as a “natural area” in 1976. The official dedication ceremony, according to Owen Sowerine records, took place in September of 1978.

In an article on the ceremony, a Daily Inter Lake reporter wrote, “It became official Saturday. A wild thicket enfolded in the coils of the Flathead and Stillwater Rivers is now protected under the name Owen Sowerwine, the longtime Flathead Valley resident and conservationist who initiated the fight to preserve the areas.”

Reporter Kianna Gardner can be reached at 758-4407 or kgardner@dailyinterlake.com.

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Lettering on a stump at the beginning of a trail off Treasure Lane at Owen Sowerwine Natural Area in Kalispell on Friday, April 24. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake)

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A northern flicker woodpecker sings from a group of white birches at Owen Sowerwine Natural Area in Kalispell on Friday, April 24. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake)

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The Bypass Trail is shown as it branches off from the Main Trail near the Treasure Lane access at Owen Sowerwine Natural Area in Kalispell on Friday, April 24. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake)

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Tree stumps sit in a floodplain off the Flathead River at Owen Sowerwine Natural Area in Kalispell on Friday, April 24. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake)

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Lettering on a stump marks an entrance point off Treasure Lane at Owen Sowerwine Natural Area in Kalispell on Friday, April 24. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake)

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A northern flicker woodpecker perches on a post at Owen Sowerwine Natural Area in Kalispell on April 24. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake)

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Information on the trails, native bird species, plants, wildlife and more can be found at the Treasure Lane access to Owen Sowerwine Natural Area in Kalispell on Friday, April 24. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake)

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A section of trail winds into the woods at Owen Sowerwine Natural Area in Kalispell on Friday, April 24. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake)

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