Dust up 

Flathead commissioners allow Glacier gravel pit

Even on an overcast Friday afternoon in April, well before Glacier National Park opens, there are five cars parked in the lot at the Apgar Lookout trailhead, which leads hikers to Apgar Mountain’s peak. It’s one of the most easily accessible trails in Glacier, just a half mile in from the park entrance and three miles down a gravel road along its southwestern border. The views along the 2.8-mile trail are spectacular, thanks to the 2003 Robert Fire. From the top, where the old Apgar fire lookout sits, there are views down to Lake McDonald with Glacier’s peaks reflected in its blue water.

Despite the views, it’d be a stretch to call the area pristine. This southwest corner of the park is the intersection of Glacier and the bustling Flathead Valley. The relative quiet of the trail is punctuated by bursts from train whistles on the nearby tracks. Look southwest from Lake McDonald, and there’s Highway 2, a golf course and the park entrance. And look a little farther west and there’s an 8-acre gravel pit.

That pit, owned by Kalispell resident Robert Spoklie and situated less than a half-mile from the park, just across the Middle Fork from Apgar Mountain, is now the center of a controversial development with major repercussions throughout the area. On April 19, Flathead County commissioners approved Spoklie’s plan to extend the pit to 24 acres because of a state law that supercedes county restrictions.

Nevertheless, the gravel pit, say neighbors and park officials, is an aberration—an environmental liability and enormous eyesore.

According to Brace Hayden, regional issues specialist for the park, a plume of dust from the pit could be seen from the park last year. The cloud was created, he says, when Spoklie began expanding the pit before he had even received county approval.

Hayden worries dust from the pit will not only affect view sheds, but also air quality in the park. In addition, he’s worried about the potential impact on wildlife crossing from the Bob Marshall Wilderness to Glacier National Park.

“It’s going to be in an area where wildlife moves back and forth,” Hayden says. “Any industrial activities on the park’s borders are a concern from a wildlife standpoint.”

Hayden acknowledges this part of the park is already more developed than others, but maintains the pit goes too far.

“Certainly there are other concerns,” he says, “but this is a pretty significant industrial activity, proposed to be expanded to 24 acres right on the park’s borders.”

Hayden has spoken out against the pit at county hearings, along with a group of residents who formed the Middle Canyon Group in opposition of the plan.

Lisa Towery, president of the group, and Ann Fagre, a member, each own property bordering Spoklie’s gravel pit. They have held onto their respective acreage here for years, hoping to one day build their dream homes.

Walking on her property, Towery points out deer and elk droppings along game paths that crisscross the land; she notes the sound of the nearby Middle Fork and the views. And there, right on the edge of her property, are piles of gravel and a big hole in the ground.

“We’re not just fighting this for the locals,” she says. “It’s for everyone.”

Towery, Fagre and Hayden were all surprised that Spoklie was able to get permission to build his pit.

“What discourages us,” says Hayden, “is that we thought the Middle Canyon Plan, which applies to this area, prohibited this type of activity, but apparently Mr. Spoklie has been successful, at least at this point, at demonstrating that he’s been grandfathered in.”

The Canyon Area Land Use Regulatory System, approved by county commissioners in 1994 to regulate land use in this area, banned any new gravel pits.

It also should have prevented the Spoklie pit, which was dug by its previous owners in March of 1991, from being grandfathered in. To be grandfathered, according to the canyon’s land use regulations, the pit had to be in continuous use before the new regulations went into effect. Spoklie’s pit had been out of use for more than a decade.

Flathead County commissioners used these grounds to unanimously deny Spoklie’s pit in January 2006. Spoklie then filed suit against the county, and on April 19, Flathead County’s own lawyer pointed out that state law bars county regulation of pits dug before April of 1991. County commissioners voted
2–1 to settle the suit, with Gary Hall still voting against it.

The settlement allows Spoklie to mine gravel on eight acres at any one time in a 24-acre area from August 22 to November 14, and from March 13 to June 14.

Gov. Brian Schweitzer proposed an eleventh-hour solution when he added an amendment to HB 583, a bill revising Montana’s Opencut Mining Act. The amendment would have given the state the ability to review proposed gravel pits within one mile of a national park, but the bill was tabled just before the regular session ended.

The only remaining possibility of stopping the pit now lies with a counterclaim to Spoklie’s original suit filed in Flathead County District Court April 30 by the Middle Canyon Group.

Jack Tuholske, lawyer for the group, says current law prevents county commissioners from fulfilling their obligation to provide a “clean and healthful environment” under Montana’s constitution. It also, he says, violates the equal protection clause by exempting the gravel industry alone from obeying zoning laws.

“It isn’t as if we’re running out of gravel,” says Tuholske. “It’s not a vital national interest.”
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