Community trust 

Whitefish grows wary of planning its remaining open space

The bike trails on Spencer Mountain near Whitefish are part singletrack, part funhouse ride. They have names like ski runs: “Maple Syrup,” “Pancake Pete’s” and the ironically tagged “No Bikes.”

Over the last several years, this densely forested ridge north of Whitefish has become the playground for the Flathead’s most aggressive mountain bikers. From fallen logs and tree trunks, they’ve built suspended ramps, jumps and berms that make some of the trails on Spencer Mountain look like a carnival ride. None of these man-made “stunts” are safe for beginners and none of them were legally constructed.

So last February, Tyler Tourville—president of the Flathead Fat Tire Association—approached the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation asking how mountain bikers could legitimize themselves on Spencer Mountain. Tourville hoped his club could work with the DNRC to create a formal trail system, with signs, safety warnings and regular trash patrols. The DNRC, which manages public school trust lands like those on Spencer Mountain, wrote back on Feb. 6, explaining that the agency was in the process of developing a “Neighborhood Plan for not only the Spencer Lake area, but for a much broader area including Beaver Lakes, North Whitefish and Happy Valley.”

This was news to Tourville, and to most people in Whitefish, who cherish these 12,000-plus acres of DNRC land. Together, these tracts form the last, best, public open space in an area that’s being rapidly transformed by real estate development. Word got out about the DNRC’s neighborhood plan, and on May 12, the DNRC was waylaid by more than 300 anxious Whitefish locals at its first public meeting.

“We caught them off guard,” says Bonnie Hodges, who, along with Tourville, is part of a growing coalition of residents called Friends of Spencer Mountain. On July 21, the group attracted 75 people to a prep rally aimed at training the public for active participation in what’s sure to become a drawn-out planning process. Whitefish is the first place the DNRC has launched this kind of land use planning, which could be replicated around the state as the DNRC looks for new ways to generate school revenue from its forestlands.

Mike Jopek, chairman of the Whitefish City-County Planning Board, told the crowd at the July 21 gathering: “Obviously, DNRC is heading down the path saying, ‘Timber management isn’t really working for us. What are some of the other opportunities?’”

One opportunity for the DNRC is real estate development. The agency continues to be approached by contractors who want to tap into Whitefish’s white-hot housing market.

“Pressure was coming to us to make land use decisions,” says the DNRC’s Jeanne Holmgren, explaining that the agency was giving developers “the stiff arm” because it had no money to fund a public planning process.

Then, this past December, the DNRC began talks with a pair of Whitefish landowners: Mark Kvamme and Mike Goguen. Kvamme and Goguen insist they have no development ambitions for their land, or any state land. When the two approached the DNRC, they wanted to know what kinds of development might appear on state lands adjacent to their property. When the DNRC offered only vague answers, they got worried. That’s why Kvamme and Goguen decided to lend the agency a hand this past winter.

The assistance arrived in the form of two checks. Goguen gave the DNRC $40,500, and Kvamme donated $20,000. According to a “memorandum of understanding” between the men and the DNRC, the money went toward the adoption of a neighborhood plan that “will benefit DNRC and the general public by offering clear guidance to the future use of state lands in the Whitefish area.”

When not in Whitefish, both Kvamme and Goguen work for Sequoia Capital in Menlo Park, Calif. Kvamme says he’s an active donor to the Whitefish Community Foundation, and according to county records, he owns more than 140 acres near the north end of Whitefish Lake. Goguen has about 700 acres on the lake’s west side.

These woodsy retreats offer Goguen and Kvamme plenty of privacy—something they tried to protect when they made their donations to the DNRC.

“We’re trying to help the community and don’t want to be in the forefront of this thing,” says Goguen, who acknowledges that by quietly placing private money into the public process, he and Kvamme have invited suspicion about their true intentions. “Our desire to kind of remain in the background could stir up some questions.”

At the two public hearings held by the DNRC in Whitefish this summer, the agency offered no answers to questions about who was behind the current planning process. DNRC representatives made no public mention of Goguen and Kvamme, and sources close to the DNRC worried the whole shebang was being driven by developers.

Again, Goguen offers this reassurance: “There are no nefarious dealings here.”

Instead, says Janet Cornish, “There is so much change going on in the Flathead area, [the current planning process] was DNRC’s effort to get ahead of things.”

Cornish is the consultant who landed the $50,000, privately-funded DNRC contract to create a land use plan for school trust property around Whitefish. She insists the plan will not skew toward any one interest, describing the range of options and development “tools” as “quite extensive.” Cornish also acknowledges that subdivision development remains a viable option.

“That might be a tool to achieve a desired land use,” she says.

Whether the end result is the construction of log castles or log “stunts” for cyclists on Spencer Mountain, one thing is certain, says the Whitefish Planning Board’s Jopek: “This issue is going to get more politically hot as the days go on.”

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