All appears well for Haskill Basin conservation easement area

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Haskill Basin survived a tough fire season this summer and brought new visitors into the area with an already-popular trail.

Representatives from the city of Whitefish, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, F.H. Stoltze Land & Lumber Co. and the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation met last week for a liaison team meeting to review the Haskill Basin conservation easement, which protects about 3,000 acres of forestland north of Whitefish. Liaison team meetings are required annually by the easement and offer an opportunity to discuss any issues with respect to public use, land use, access issues, conditions, or other unanticipated problems related to the preserved lands.

Stoltze followed Stage 2 fire restrictions beginning in August, when fires began to blow up statewide, and ceased any road and trail building activities in Haskill Basin.

This fire season was especially unsettling, Chuck Roady, vice president and general manager at Stoltze, said.

“The fire restrictions this year were very scary to Stoltze and we took those very seriously. It was very unnerving, the fuels were at record lows this year,” Roady said. “We made some real gut wrenching decisions there. In the end, we left it open — when we did a full closure — to people who wanted to walk in, but even that scared us a little bit. It was dry.”

Trail building activities resumed later in the summer once fire danger levels dropped.

Although not yet complete, the newest section of the Whitefish Trail leading up from Reservoir Road to Big Mountain has seen its fair share of visitors. Whitefish Legacy Partners is developing the section of trail.

During the meeting, a collection of trail camera photos taken at various times of the day were presented. The photos show hikers, bikers, mountain lions, bears, elk and more all using the same section of trail at different times of the day.

“We did not stage those photos, you can’t believe the diversity,” Roady said with a grin. “Some of it’s within two hours of each other. The critters and people do get along well up there.”

The lower trailhead of the Haskill Basin trail is currently accessible off Reservoir Road. The upper trailhead on the mountain is set to open Dec. 16.

Whitefish Legacy Partners Executive Director Heidi Van Everen said she’s been excited about the early popularity of the Haskill Basin trail and thanked all parties involved for helping to make the project a reality.

“I just want to say thank you to Stoltze and FWP and all of you, because it’s been a great experience building the trail,” she said. “The response that we’re hearing from the public and everybody about their experiences — it’s going to be incredible.”

Whitefish Mayor John Muhlfeld agreed with Van Everen.

“I’ve been doing this stuff for about 13 years for the city, and I can easily say that this was by far the most rewarding project I’ve worked on in my tenure here with the city,” Muhlfeld said.

Five years of planning by the Trust for Public Land, the city of Whitefish, Stoltze and FWP led to the Haskill Basin easement, which was funded by a $4 million donation from Stoltze, $9 million in federal grants and $7.7 million from Whitefish’s resort tax and protects 3,000 acres of Stoltze land in the basin. Final documents for the easement were signed in February 2016.

Stoltze will remain the landowner and continue to maintain the forest, the easement prevents future development on the land. The deal also provides recreation access and protects the watershed that provides about 75 percent of Whitefish’s drinking water.

Another liaison team meeting will be held next fall.

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