Final stages of Whitefish Trail goes up for review

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Whitefish Legacy Partners is looking to obtain a conservation easement for 480 acres around Smith Lake.

The state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation has released the draft environmental assessment for one of the final segments of the Whitefish Trail loop that looks to complete a project more than a decade in the making.

The assessment covers Phase II of the larger Close the Loop project. The second phase looks to connect the trail from Beaver Lakes to Swift Creek, west of Whitefish Lake on state land, and includes a public recreation use easement located east of the Swift Creek Trailhead in the Smith Lake area.

Whitefish Legacy Partners, acting in conjunction with the city of Whitefish, is proposing to purchase about 11 acres of trail easement, 480 acres of public recreation use easement surrounding Smith Lake and convert the existing Swift Creek trail land use license on 5.4 acres to a permanent easement on the Stillwater State Forest.

The release of the assessment began a 30-day public review period that ends on April 21.

The DNRC is required to follow the Montana Environmental Policy Act to complete an extensive environmental review of projects proposed on State Trust Lands. The review looks at soils, hydrology, wildlife, safety and economics to determine the potential impacts of the proposal.

Nicole Stickney, Special Uses Forester for the Stillwater State Forest, said an environmental assessment contains detailed scientific information to alert to any potential problems and solutions, and to provide the Stillwater Unit Manager information to make a decision concerning the proposal.

“The existing environment is analyzed and researched to determine what the effects of the proposal would have on each resource [issue] that was brought up during the scoping process,” she said.

The easements being reviewed by DNRC are part of the Whitefish Legacy Partners Close the Loop project that in total looks to construct the final 15 miles to complete the more than 55-mile loop tail and protect lands around Whitefish Lake. The trail began with the Whitefish School Trust Lands Neighborhood Plan approved in 2004 as a land-use plan for the 13,000-plus acres of State School Trust Land surrounding Whitefish, and has since resulted in the Whitefish Trail with 42 miles and 12 trailheads.

As part of the current easements under review for Phase II, 2.8 miles of an existing licensed trail — the Swift Creek Trail — would be purchased from the state, about 4.7 miles of new trail would be constructed and 1.2 miles of existing road would be converted to non-motorized trail. In addition, a boardwalk is planned to be constructed over wetlands along with three bridges across Swift, Lazy and Brush creeks.

A pedestrian bridge would also be constructed over the BNSF railway tracks.

As part of the recreation use easement around Smith Lake, the plan calls for constructing 3.8 miles of new trail, and purchasing .6 miles of existing Swift Creek Trail. Two pedestrian bridges are planned to cross Smith Creek and a day-use area with a pavilion located adjacent to Smith Lake, along with fencing to protect the spillway and dam at the lake and a new Smith Lake South Trailhead are all proposed.

Heidi Van Everen, executive director of Whitefish Legacy Partners, said by creating the trail, along with preserving the area around Smith Lake, the land will be protected. She points out that if sold, Smith Lake could be surrounded by homes fragmenting habitat and compromising water quality.

“We’re creating recreation opportunities, but the real value is making sure those properties aren’t developed,” she said.

The final segment of the trail in Phase II will leave Beaver Lakes and travel downhill to a pedestrian bridge over the railroad tracks east of Boyle Lake. Users can explore the forests and open meadows, cross Lazy and Swift creeks, and connect to the existing trail at Swift Creek and Smith Lake. The design of sections of the trail is much like other sections of the already existing Whitefish Trail.

Van Everen said the location was selected to keep it closer to town in the wildland urban interface.

“We wanted to keep the trail system tight to the Whitefish Lake,” she said. “It was important to protect those areas, but it also provides more value to users.”

DNRC plans to retain the property and overall management of the land for commercial timber and resource conservation.

The environmental assessment points out the construction of the trails could likely have a low cumulative effect on erosion and the about 14 acres of habitat in the easement areas though would be permanently affected the construction of 8.5 miles of trail would result only in minor changes in habitat characteristics in localized area as vegetation is cleared.

Stickney said the assessment shows there would be a low impact to vegetation because few trees and vegetation would need to be removed to build the trail and associated infrastructure. However, there were some resources that were identified as having the potential for moderate to major effects, she noted, with the highest potential being water resources and wildlife.

The proposed trail would involve five stream crossings and cross up to .25 acre of riparian and wetland habitat of the 140 acres.

“Detailed field mapping of wetlands would be completed during the final trail design phases and permitting,” the analysis notes. “Impacts to important habitats that attract high numbers of wildlife, such as streams and wetlands, would be minimized though the use of bridges and boardwalks and [best management practices] implemented during construction.”

Van Everen said the suggestions for mitigation regarding constructing the bridges and trails in the assessment are what Legacy Partners had been expecting. A river analysis will also be conducted through DNRC to determine the exact placement of the bridges.

“We like that it’s been evaluated and set what we can build as long as we follow this mitigation and we have recommendations to follow,” she said.

The environmental assessment points out that signs will be needed to remind users to remain on the trail, be cautious of wildlife and some seasonal closures may be necessary to protect wildlife.

Alan Myers-Davis, director of development for Legacy Parters, notes that dispersed recreation that has been occurring in some areas is damaging the landscape, but by adding the trail that can actually improve the situation.

“What we find is that with the trail people aren’t leaving the trail corridor and we can prevent the resource from being damaged,” he said. “The trail can become a solution to fix a problem.”

Legacy Partners points out that by purchasing the easements from the state it will essentially be putting money into Montana schools as beneficiaries of the state Trust Lands, in this case primarily state universities. They estimate that about $250,000 per year would go to benefit public schools, if the easements are approved.

Legacy Partners estimates the costs for all the phases of the Close the Loop at $5 million to $8 million including easements and trail construction. The section covered in the current DNRC environmental assessment for Phase II is estimated at $3.2 million for purchase of the easements, $1.2 million for bridge construction and about $500,000 for trail construction.

Raising funds for easement purchases and subsequent trail construction is what the nonprofit has been doing now for years, says Myers-Davis. He points out that while the Phase II section is estimated to cost about $5 million total it is still less money than the total the organization has raised in the past.

“We’ve had some large donations, but our median donation amount is $100,” he said. “There has been a huge community effort behind us with 1,100 donors in our lifetime. This is attainable.”

Legacy Partners will be looking to secure private donations to fund the easements and trails. It intends to leverage local matching dollars with public grant opportunities.

Myers-Davis notes that the community will make back that investment from the economic benefit of the trail, which Headwaters Economics found in a recent study contributes $6.4 million to consumer spending in Whitefish each year.

After public comment is received on the environmental assessment, revisions to the document will be made, if necessary, and the final environmental assessment is expected to be available in mid-June.

A record of decision based on the assessment will be issued by the Stillwater Unit Manager and if favorable the city would then apply for easements. Once approved by DNRC, the easements would be submitted to the state Land Board to make the final determination on the trail easement, public recreation use easement and the Swift Creek Trail license conversion easement.

Legacy Partners will likely make the requests to the Land Board in sections as funding becomes available for the purchases, the group notes. Their plan is to have all the necessary permissions in place by the end of the year, secure funding in 2019 and be shovel-ready in 2020 with work set to begin in 2021, Myers-Davis notes.

Send comments on the draft environmental assessment for the Close the Loop Trail and public use easements by April 21 to Nicole Stickney, DNRC Stillwater Unit, at nstickney@mt.gov or 406-881-2666.

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