Concerns raised over section of proposed trail; officials say mitigations would be required and more evaluation still planned

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Concerns are being raised regarding a section of proposed trail between Swift and Lazy creeks as part of a potential connection for the Whitefish Trail.

However, those looking to potentially construct the trail say there’s still steps to take to determine if the trail will even be constructed in the location and it’s a process that may take years to determine.

The Montana Department of Natural Resource and Conservation last month released its notice approving the environmental assessment for the planned project to connect the trail from Beaver Lakes to Swift Creek. The notice says that no significant impacts are expected as a result of the project when mitigations are implemented.

A group of 25 area residents who signed their name to an open letter to the DNRC during the public comment period for the proposal stating that they oppose the trail through the swamp between Swift and Lazy creeks. They oppose the trail section saying it would displace wildlife from high-quality habitat noting that the wetlands provide secure habitat for grizzly bears, moose, wolves, lynx and other wildlife.

They note that thus far the Whitefish Trail has avoided high-value wildlife habitat, but say the current proposal intrudes on critical wildlife areas.

“Human wants should be balanced with wildlife needs,” the letter stated. “Dozens of miles of trail already exist and more are planned with broad support from the community. But we don’t need to have new trail everywhere, especially in sensitive wildlife areas.”

Whitefish Legacy Partners, acting in conjunction with the city of Whitefish, is applying to eventually construct a new trail to connect the existing Whitefish Trail loop trail systems in the Swift Creek and Beaver Lakes area.

Heidi Van Everen, executive director of Legacy Partners, acknowledges the concerns, but says that there is still further analysis to do before a trail may even be constructed in that location. She says it was an important first step to see if DNRC would allow the proposed trail.

“We would have never known the cost of putting in a trail there until we put it before the DNRC and they gave us the framework for if we could do it,” she said. “Now we know how we’d have to construct it and that we need bridges and boardwalks.”

Legacy Partners is looking to possibly connect the Beaver Lakes section of the Whitefish Trail to the Swift Creek trailhead. Van Everen says in creating a proposed location for a trail there, Legacy Partners has purposely asked for a trail to be located closer to areas that already see use.

“Our goal is conservation and we’ve found that by creating a trail and getting people out onto the land it’s a good way to teach people about the value of that conservation,” she said. “We’d want to design a trail that is as close to human impact areas that are already there. This really is a transition zone between front county and backcountry use.”

Steve Thompson is among those who signed the letter opposing the trail section. In a recent email to DNRC, Thompson said he is disappointed in the decision to permit a section of the trail north of Whitefish Lake.

“The wildlife analysis supporting the decision is inadequate and the minor mitigations won’t address the legitimate issues that I and others raised,” he said in an email.

Dave Ring, unit manager for the Stillwater, says the project was vetted through the Montana Environmental Policy Act process and the trail was found to have only moderate impacts. A project it would have to hit a significant level of impact before it wouldn’t be allowed on state land, he noted.

“The important thing to remember is that it’s not a decision, it’s a disclosure where we talk about the mitigations involved,” he said. “This is what DNRC feels they need to do to have a trail.”

The DNRC assessment points to requirements aimed at minimizing impacts to wildlife if trails are eventually constructed and through potential recreation use. Seasonal closures are planned to specific areas and as well as areas where dogs must be leashed or wouldn’t be allowed at all.

Chris Forristal, DNRC wildlife biologist, said the wildlife analysis while performed by an outside contractor was reviewed by DNRC, and public comments were also considered as part of that analysis. Identifying potential issues with wildlife and looking at potential impacts to threatened and endangered species is done early in the environmental analysis, he said, and later finding mitigations that would address concerns.

“Something we think a lot about is wildlife and closures, and how best to protect them,” he said. “We do the best we can to mitigate the impacts while still being fair in the process.”

Specifically for the potential trail between Swift and Lazy creek, having seasonal closures, requirements for leashing dogs and not allowing dogs were all designed to mitigate human impacts to wildlife. He notes that research shows that off leash dogs can have a greater impact to wildlife so it in the case of this trail section it was important to have that clear mitigation.

Forristal pointed to seasonal closures in the document designed to protect grizzly bears and loons at Boyle Lake as an example.

Ring points out that the trail project fits in with the mission of DNRC’s state trust lands to generate funds. An estimated $2.8 to $3.8 million is expected in revenue to the state School Trust as a result of the easements related to the trail including easements around Smith Lake that was also evaluated, according to the analysis.

“They are State Trust Lands that have a mission to generate funds first through forest management, but we’re always looking for opportunity to stack uses to generate revenue and this has the position to do that.”

Van Everen points to mitigations listed by the DNRC as guidelines for if a trail is constructed.

“They have set those parameters saying that if we want to build on the landscape here’s how we can,” she said. “We still have to look at those and see what the costs are and is there support from the public for a trail with those restrictions.”

Legacy Partners is planning a community meeting this spring to get more input on constructing a trail on DNRC land, but also looking at a second option that could be to construct a path alongside Delrey Road.

The road is owned by Flathead County and obtaining right-of-way to construct a segment of the trail could be required, as well as, bridge improvements and boardwalks for the bridge would be likely.

Van Everen said while there’s been preliminary discussions with the county about that option, it’s one that has to be investigated before being selected.

“There is still a lot of unknowns,” she said. “We had to look at the option on DNRC land and then along the road so we could have something to compare them to.”

Legacy Partners hasn’t ruled out that a trail might not go through the area, Van Everen also adds. She said while the group has a goal of connecting the trail into a full loop, its primary mission is conservation through recreation but doing it in the right way.

“We have to look at it and see if maybe it is just not worth connecting,” she said. “We’re not to that point yet — there are lots of hard decisions ahead — but we might decide that we’re OK having trails in the Beaver area and in the Smith Lake area, but they wouldn’t connect.”

In his letter, Thompson says while he continues to support the trail and Whitefish Legacy Partners mission to enhance conservation, recreation and education this project “upends this balanced mission by allowing new bridges and a high-attraction trail into a sensitive area where they don’t belong.”

Thompson says the area should be open to the public, but continued to be enjoyed by the few who do the work to get there.

Thompson, as do the other letter writers say they do, however, support the proposed trails and recreation easement in the Smith Lake area that are also part of the proposal.

Final location and design of trails will have to be finalized with DNRC managers and easements would have to be approved by the state Land Board. DNRC would retain the property and overall management of land within the easement.

To view the notice of decision, click on the Close the Loop trail under the Recreation Use heading on the DNRC’s website, http://dnrc.mt.gov/public-interest/environmental-docs.

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