Public Land, Private Property 

Conflicts grow over old homesteads inside Glacier Park

When most people think of Glacier National Park, they think of public land. But unbeknownst to many, the park also includes nearly 420 acres of privately owned property.

Most of the tracts, which range from less than an acre to over 50 acres, were purchased or claimed as homesteads before federal park status was granted in 1910. Most owners quietly visit their property, commonly known as inholdings, during the summer months. A few operate small businesses through permits with the National Park Service. Others, however, are tangled in contentious disputes as park managers try to balance landowner rights with the mandate to protect natural resources.

One of these disputes spilled into federal court earlier this year. Jack McFarland, who owns a small tract up the North Fork of the Flathead River, contends that he and his family should be allowed to ride a snowmobile, or at least plow a park road, to access their property in winter.

Not allowing the access of their choice, the family argues, amounts to an uncompensated taking of private land. Park Service officials disagreed, and the issue remains lodged before U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy of Missoula. At least two other fights involving inholders may also be headed to court, depending on how negotiations proceed in coming months.

One dispute involves Chicago personal-injury attorney Gerald Penovich, who owns a prime chunk of land near the McFarlands in the park’s Big Prairie. The Penovich family had a cabin on the quarter-acre property until the 1988 Red Bench Fire swept through and turned it to cinders. Penovich says he’s been indecisive about what to do with the land and has put it on the market to see what offers he might garner. While a $72,500 sale is pending with a Kalispell family, he says another party has offered $105,000. He expects the potential price could go even higher.

“Some Californicator will offer me $200,000, they certainly will,” Penovich confides.

But despite the thrill of high bidding, Penovich says he may just hold onto the place while his children decide whether they want it. Either way, he wants to ensure that his family or future owners can replace the burnt dwelling if they decide to rebuild. On the other side, however, is the Park Service, which recently completed a study that shows the property is prone to North Fork flooding. Federal managers are also concerned about access to the site, various endangered species, and whether a new building would fit into the area’s wild character. Nonetheless, Penovich, who has sought help from Republican U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns, recently received permits from Flathead County and installed a new well and septic system at the site. He says he may start construction, whether the government likes it or not.

“I think the park is on real, real thin ground here,” Penovich says. “Basically, I could just go in and build tomorrow. If they were smart, they wouldn’t do anything.”

Penovich says he’s not trying to bully the government, and he proclaims a great love for the park and all its splendors. He also contends former Glacier Superintendent Gil Lusk, who left the park years ago, told him he could rebuild the cabin. If the park wants to buy the property, Penovich says, fair market value will have to be paid. And that, he contends, is what any other buyer is willing to offer.

“Whatever they do, they’ve got to justly compensate,” he says. “The value is in the contract. I respect national park management, but I’m not going to give away my rights in the meantime.”

But Brace Hayden, who manages private property issues for the park, says Penovich has not submitted any formal proposals for rebuilding his cabin and has thus far not allowed government appraisers access to his property. Hayden also disputes a claim by Penovich that the park has offered him only $9,000 for his land. “The file shows there’s never been an offer,” Hayden says. “By law, we have to appraise the property first.”

Except in rare circumstances, the federal government can obtain private property within national parks only if the buyer is willing. While some tracts have been condemned over the years, that practice has largely been curtailed because of shifting political winds that now place higher value on individual rights.

Another situation that’s fermenting also involves land up the North Fork, this time the former Cummings Ranch along Quartz Creek. The 130-acre parcel, which started as a homestead, has long been owned by the Warren Heylman family, which resides in Washington state. But access to the site has been greatly diminished through a variety of factors.

According to Hayden, the historic road that leads to the property is actually part of the park’s trail system, and motorized vehicles are not allowed. During the Red Bench blaze, however, a bulldozer used the artery to help establish a fire line. Now the family wants to clear out brush and trees that have grown up since the fire and use the old road again, even though it’s been “rehabilitated” by the park.

Glacier officials told the Heylmans that’s not an appropriate use of the trail, and the family has appealed the decision all the way to Park Service headquarters in Washington, D.C. Hayden says the Heylmans have also indicated they want to rebuild at least some structures at the site. But there are fears, he says, that attempts may be made to turn the area into a destination resort. The Heylmans could not be contacted for comment. “There are definitely two sides to the story,” Hayden says. “We have our obligation to protect park resources. They certainly have their rights. But we think we’re doing our jobs as far as what the statutes require.”

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