Making school trust lands profitable, maintaining and improving public access, and managing the lands for timber harvest is the tall order for more than 13-thousand-acres near Whitefish. Monday the State Land Board approved two elements of a long term plan to meet these goals. The effort in Whitefish offers a unique way for school trust lands to generate money for the state through recreation development.
The collaboration is among private individuals, the City of Whitefish, the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, State Parks, and the U-S Forest Service. On Monday the State Land Board Approved a recreation easement and retired development rights for more than 15-hundred-acres west of Whitefish. This netted the state more than $7-million. It also approved a Land Bank transaction of almost 6-hundred-acres for nearly $3-million. A Land Bank transaction is similar to a land swap, but instead of swapping land, it takes cash for acres allowing the state to buy more land elsewhere.
Executive Director Heidi Van Everen with the Whitefish Legacy Partners says the Land Board’s approval gives the go-ahead to two parts of an ongoing effort to keep school trust lands profitable and open to the public. Whitefish Legacy Partners is a non-profit organization that has been raising funds for the effort.
Van Everen says it all started when the DNRC proposed developing a section of the school trust land in 2003.
“The community wanted to make sure that the state knew that that was not what Whitefish wanted to have happen to the lands adjacent to the community. So, the community gathered together and worked with the DNRC to come up with a more compatible use of the lands,” Van Everen said it also committed to finding how to generate revenue for schools and maintain recreation opportunities.
Governor Brian Schweitzer says the Whitefish effort could be a model for other communities.
“It demonstrates a new way for the department of state lands to actually raise revenue beyond where our traditional uses have been which is logging, mining, oil and gas, grazing, wheat, and metals, and there is a potential all across Montana for raising revenues in recreation,” Schweitzer said.
The two transactions approved by the Land Board Monday brought nearly $10-million to the state for schools.
Whitefish Legacy Partners are working on the Whitefish Trail which runs in an out of the city, through some of the state trust lands, and has an ultimate goal connecting the lakes in the trust lands with the city, and Whitefish Mountain Resort.
In some ways it’s fitting that Governor Schweitzer is sitting on the Land Board as this decision crosses its agenda. The process of putting together this partnership and opening this dialogue started when he was still a Whitefish resident, before becoming Governor.
“The compromise that we found is spectacular,” Schweitzer said. “The point is this; that the historic timber harvest will continue on these lands, and the people of Whitefish will privately pay for recreation trails on the exact same lands where there will be logging from time to time in the future.”
Van Everen says this project has both short and long term goals. In the short term they’re working to expand the trail system. The nearly 6-hundred-acre Land Bank Transaction approved Monday includes two-new-miles of trail being added to the Whitefish Trail. In the long-term Van Everen says the goal is looking to keep acquiring easements and making sure the land stays open.
“We’re definitely on the road to creating a legacy for future generations that will secure the landscape and provide education and recreation and conservation for generations to come; for our kids kids, and make sure that we come up with innovative and unprecedented solutions to secure these important places for the future,” Van Everen said so far they’ve secured 32-hundred-acres for permanent recreation and are continuing to raise funds to acquire easements and establish more miles of trail.