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Public comment sought for Owen Sowerwine conservation easement

by HAYDEN BLACKFORD
Daily Inter Lake | October 25, 2022 12:00 AM

Residents have until Oct. 31 to weigh on a proposed conservation easement on stretches of the Flathead and Stillwater rivers in the Owen Sowerwine area just east of Kalispell.

The Flathead Land Trust is seeking to purchase the easement on the 442 acres of State School Land Trust property, which is currently administered by the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. The Flathead Land Trust would pay nearly $690,000 with those dollars held in trust for the benefit of common public schools and other endowed institutions in Montana, according to Anne Shaw Moran, the project manager for the Owen Sowerwine area.

In the past, the area has been leased for the same beneficiary. The Montana Audubon Society, Flathead County Audubon Society and Flathead County leased the area for 40 years as a natural area, according to a press release by the Flathead Land Trust.

“(It’s) not a change in use, but a proposed change in funding and perpetuity,” Shaw Moran said.

DNRC officials are currently performing public scoping to get feedback and comments, and will then decide on what is appropriate for the trust land, Shaw Moran said. This is part of the Montana Environmental Policy Act process. Eventually, the State Land Board would need to approve the conservation easement.

“If the project moves forward then it would secure the current environment long-term,” Shaw Moran said.

Owen Sowerwine is used by the public for wildlife viewing, birdwatching and even hunting, said Gael Bissell of the Flathead Audubon society. Bissell noted that the area is mostly braided river bottom and floodplain that is home to old-growth cottonwoods.

The area has a long history, according to Bissell. In the 1970s a man named Owen Sowerwine — who the area was later named after — was active in the community and identified the confluence as a pleasant place for people to recreate, she said.

After initial protection efforts failed to establish permanent protections for the area, Flathead County leased the Owen Sowerwine from the DNRC for 20 years. Later, the lease was transferred to the Montana Audubon Society, who managed it as a natural area with help from the Flathead Audubon Society.

“We’re just trying to keep it the same as it’s been for 40 years,” Bissell said.

The Flathead Audubon Society, which has been taking bird sightings since the early 1990s, has recorded over 150 species of birds in the area. It is designated by the society as an Important Bird Area.

The Common School Trust goes to benefit all the schools in the state. These school trust lands are spread out throughout the state and generate revenue in different ways, according to Katzman.

“Given the constraints of the flood plain, traditional uses such as grazing are incompatible and development opportunities would generally not be viable due to the small amount of acreage outside of the floodplain. It would be in the school trust’s best interest to pursue a perpetual easement for the property that will continue to generate predictable, annual revenue to benefit K-12 education through the investment in the permanent trust fund. The Land Board, however, will make the final decision on this disposition,” said Paul Travis, the executive director of Flathead Land Trust, in the prepared statement.

The area includes islands between the Flathead and Stillwater rivers, and has been documented as a nesting ground for ospreys, bald eagles and great horn owls, Katzman said.

The Flathead Land Trust works to protect land along the Flathead River and throughout Northwest Montana. On the Flathead River, preservation of undisturbed land or even rich farmland helps maintain good habitat for wildlife, Katzman said.

“This 440 acres is located in a really key location for birds and wildlife. It's so close to Kalispell it can be enjoyed by the public, or used for educational opportunities.” Katzman said.

Public comment will be received by the DNRC until Oct. 31 and can be submitted by emailing comments to Kara Neal: kara.neal@mt.gov. Hard copies of comments can be sent via mail to the following address: Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, Attn: Kara Neal, 655 Timberwolf Pkwy. Ste. 2, Kalispell, MT 59901.

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