The Whitefish Neighborhood Plan has guided local land management decisions for over a decade, and the engine driving our community’s conservation is the Whitefish Trail project. With 42 miles, 12 trailheads, and counting, our local trail system seamlessly blends conservation, education, and recreation to ensure these same opportunities will be available for future generations.
To date, Whitefish Legacy Partners has collaborated to protect 6,100 acres of local land, and every year, over 1,000 youth participate in outdoor education programs on the Whitefish Trail. Whether attending a watershed field trip as a third grader, joining a wild mushroom hike as a grandparent, or simply hiking with friends, the trail fosters a deep appreciation to our forests and surrounding landscapes. Placing thousands of acres into permanent protection and completing the 55 plus mile loop trail around Whitefish Lake are ambitious projects that arose from a community with an ambitious vision.
The Close the Loop project will permanently protect 480 acres at Smith Lake. This pristine body of water is sandwiched between residential development on Whitefish Lake and the steep, rugged slopes of the Whitefish Range, and the reality is we may not enjoy public access to Smith Lake forever. The flat benches overlooking Whitefish Lake would undoubtedly make great home sites, but as a community, we must think further down the road than our own horizon.
The proposed trails will bolster our conservation ethic and create unmatched education value. Viewing the Lazy Creek wetlands at work will teach trail users about the importance of buffers and water quality, while witnessing the raw power of Swift Creek at spring flood will demonstrate river hydrology first-hand.
Since 2009, the community has spent $9.35 million on trail construction, conservation easements, recreation licenses, and operations and maintenance costs. Of that total $7.3 million of protected Beaver Lakes forever with the purchase of a permanent public recreation use easement from the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. Those dollars did more than just pay the state to remove development rights, those millions directly benefited Montana public schools and universities and created the Whitefish Trail as we know it today. Yes, the price tag is high, but the return on investment is even higher.
A recent study by Headwaters Economics found that the Whitefish Trail contributes to $6.4 million in consumer spending in Whitefish every year and supports 50 local jobs. As we enter the ninth year of the project, the community has more than recouped its investment. Looking forward, the final costs are not just worthwhile, they’re smart business. Preliminary calculations estimate the conservation of Smith Lake to cost about $3 million to $5 million, the five proposed bridges to cost about $1.5 million, and the trail and trailheads to cost about $1 million. Our local economy will recoup the final costs within the first few years for a project that will last many years to come.
For the future generations of Montanans, help protect Smith Lake and secure public access forever. We urge you to join Whitefish Legacy Partners in support of the Whitefish Trail Close the Loop Project.
The DNRC is now at the critical stage of gathering public input on the final stages of the Whitefish Trail project. Your comments in support of this vital effort can be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org or mailed to Stillwater State Forest, P.O. Box 164, Olney, MT 59927 by April 21.
Diane Conradi and Hank Ricklefs serve on the board of directors for Whitefish Legacy Partners.