Friday, July 19, 2024

Of blooms and building booms

| June 2, 2024 12:00 AM

While we waited to start the wildflower walk, we hikers shot the breeze as we soaked up the evening sun in Bigfork. Watching the activity on an adjacent property, one of us said, “That’s one busy family.” We wondered if it was hard to live near a trailhead.

Another of the hikers, Margaret Notley of the Flathead Land Trust, said, “On the other hand, this could have been a subdivision.”

As a board member of the group that owns the 238-acre Harrell Forest, now under conservation easement, Notley knows this place will exist forever as open space.

I appreciate these semi-wild oases. Given how difficult it is to manage larger, popular spaces for the public good, it is these smaller parcels that may mean the most, especially for locals. 

We saw a half-dozen bicyclists on the trail. They already knew about this slice of heaven, which is set for its first summer of public use.

“It’s all protected,” guide Jen Guse of the Flathead Land Trust said. “For the most part it’s just trails and nature.” 

Having served 20 years as a botanist in Glacier National Park, Guse cautioned we were early for wildflowers. Even so, she said, “early blue violet and Oregon grape are the stars right now.”

Along Swan Hill Trail, part of the 6-plus miles of trail, we saw plenty of them, and a variety of other flowers, from the teeny white chickweed to yellow pops of arnica and glacier lilies, fuchsia shooting star and blue-eyed Mary.

Guse sees the bigger plant picture. Although the property had been tightly managed after it burned in the Echo Lake Fire of the 1920s, she said, “I’m surprised there are as many natives as there are.”

She had us smell the citrusy leaves of a grand fir, talked about how sedge leaves were used to line native Americans’ pit ovens, and likened the bark of ponderosa pine trees to puzzle pieces. She added that the pines smell good, too: “Next time the sun is out, smell your ponderosas.”

Flathead County, the third largest county in the state, is about 90 percent owned by state and federal government with other land dedicated to agriculture or timber use, “confining development to the remaining 6% of the area,” according to the county website. 

The hot topic of the day is “affordable housing.” Space for it is competitive and often contested. Hopefully, we can balance needs for nature and places to live.

I think of my grandparents, who grew up in Lincoln and Flathead counties and valued investing in real estate. They always said, “They’re not making any more land!”

As we hiked back to our cars the group shared stories of previous owners, and Guse pointed out where the first Eva Gates’ jams were made. One guy said the hike was his first big outing since surgery on a torn Achilles. I asked if he’d been skiing. He shook his head: “Pickleball.”

Harrell Forest is where the people meet, the air is fresh and the view of the north shore of Flathead Lake will make you grin. 

Guse said a bench is on the way, so visitors can linger and recharge.

Margaret E. Davis, executive director of the Northwest Montana History Museum, can be reached at