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Forest conservation planned near Bigfork

by CHAD SOKOL
Daily Inter Lake | September 14, 2021 12:00 AM

Several conservation groups have joined forces to protect 236 acres of forestland and open space, and build more than 4 miles of publicly accessible trails, a short distance from downtown Bigfork.

The Trust for Public Land, the Flathead Land Trust and the Montana Land Reliance last week announced their plans for the property on the flanks of Swan Hill, which was once slated for development of 17 new residential lots.

In a news release, the groups said the protected area will offer "unfettered views of Flathead Lake and the Swan Mountain Range, while providing public access to extraordinary front-country recreational opportunities," as well as "protection and landscape connectivity for wildlife species such as whitetail deer, turkey and black bear."

Lucas Cain, of the Trust for Public Land, added the project "will also allow for continued forest health management to reduce the risk of wildfire threats which have become so prevalent in our region."

The new trail system isn't yet open to the public, but the conservation groups said it will complement existing trails such as the Swan River Trail "that have become increasingly crowded due to an uptick in usage during the Covid-19 pandemic."

Rebecca Bullis, a spokeswoman for the Trust for Public Land, said the new trailhead will be accessible from Bigfork Stage Road just a half-mile from the town.

"There are a lot of moving parts here, including community involvement, planning and design, and fundraising, but if overall project implementation continues to progress, the groups expect the project could be complete and open to the public in the next 1-2 years," Bullis said in an email Monday.

"We look forward to engaging with the community as we work towards providing much-needed front-country recreation on this property that otherwise could have been lost to subdivision and development," said Paul Travis, executive director of the Flathead Land Trust.

Alan and Cindy Horn donated the property, which is currently owned by the Trust for Public Land, in December 2020. Eventually, ownership will be transferred to the Flathead Land Trust, with the Montana Land Reliance holding a conservation easement, the groups said.

"We have many wonderful memories of our time in Bigfork and the Flathead Valley and are very pleased to have been able to contribute this beautiful property to the community," the Horns said in a statement.

Separately, in 2017, the Horns donated nearly 1,100 acres of land along the Stillwater River near Olney, which the Flathead Land Trust has protected with a conservation easement. That land is surrounded by state trust land and the Flathead National Forest.

Assistant editor Chad Sokol may be reached at 406-758-4439 or csokol@dailyinterlake.com.