Next section of Whitefish Trail going through review

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

Whitefish Legacy Partners is looking ahead for the next expansion of the Whitefish Trail as well as to create a recreation easement around Smith Lake west of Whitefish.

Legacy Partners, along with the city of Whitefish, has applied for trail and recreation easements on the Stillwater State Forest. The state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation is currently reviewing the proposal and will hold a public meeting on it next week.

The proposed section of trail would connect Beaver Lakes to Swift Creek and permanently protect 480 acres at Smith Lake.

Heidi Van Everen, executive director of Legacy Partners said the proposal will open up a whole new area to more recreation while allowing for educational opportunities and conservation around the lake.

“It’s fun to go out there and think about the future of what it could be,” she said. “It will give a way to experience the landscape out there.”

The project is part of the Legacy Partners larger Close the Loop project to create a trail around Whitefish Lake. This spring the group broke ground on a section of trail in Haskill Basin and it aims to complete the entire trail around Whitefish Lake.

Legacy Partners is proposing to purchase a public recreation use easement on 480 acres at Smith Lake. Under the easement, 0.6 miles of existing trail under a land use license would be secured and 3.4 miles of new trail would be constructed.

Van Everen said Legacy Partners wants to ensure that there is no chance for development in critical areas such as at Smith Lake.

Also included in the proposal is parking and minor improvements to the Smith Lake parking area, a 25-foot pedestrian bridge across Smith Creek, a day use site adjacent to the east side of Smith Lake Dam, and a trailhead located on the East Smith Lake Road, including a parking lot.

Van Everen said the plan is to create a learning pavilion similar to the one at the Lion Mountain section of the Whitefish Trail that could be used for education.

“Lion Mountain is great because it’s close to town, but this is near water so we can tell the story of water,” she said.

The proposal also calls for the purchase of a 16-foot wide trail easement on 8.2 miles of trails between the Whitefish Trail Swift Creek Trailhead and North Beaver Connection Trailhead. This would include 2.9 miles of existing trail under a land use license to be secured and 5.3 miles of new trail to be constructed.

Three bridges — over Swift Creek, Lazy Creek and the BNSF railroad tracks — would need to be built for connectivity from the Swift Creek Trailhead to the North Beaver Connection.

The project will protect wildlife habitat connectivity, ensure watershed conservation, continue sustainable forestry and promote community education and an overall appreciation for the landscapes surrounding the community, according to Legacy Partners.

Legacy Partners is planning to fund the purchase of the recreation easements from federal and state sources along with private donations. Van Everen said the cost for the project is estimated at $5 million to $10 million.

DNRC is currently in the scoping phase of review and accepting comments on the proposal.

Dave Ring, with DNRC, said the project will be reviewed under the Montana Environmental Policy Act and a draft is expected in early October. A final decision is expected by the end of the year on the easements, which will ultimately go before the state Land Board.

Ring said the review will look at comments from the DNRC and the public while reviewing how the proposals would impact the area. For example, he noted that the area is great spring habitat for bears and parts of it are a wetland so the review will look at what impacts a trail could have.

“We have to look at balancing recreational use and protecting the habitat,” Ring said. “We have to find that balance for what we allow for use and still protecting the area.”

In addition the project includes several proposed bridges.

“That’s a lot of infrastructure and we have to make sure that can be maintained,” he said. “Legacy Partners has proven themselves, but this is a huge step for them so we have to make sure they are able to do that.”

The DNRC has extended the comment period on the project until Aug. 1. A public meeting on it will be held Thursday, July 27 from 6 to 7 p.m. at Whitefish City Hall.

To view the scoping notice and map, visit http://dnrc.mt.gov/public-interest/public-notices.

Comments are being accepted by mail to Nicole Stickney, Stillwater State Forest, P.O. Box 164, Olney, MT 59927 or by email at nstickney@mt.gov or call (406) 881-2666.

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