Whitefish blazes a new trail

The scene at the Sept. 6 Whitefish City Council meeting couldn’t have been more different from the contentious gatherings the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) held two years ago.

Rep. Mike Jopek, D-Whitefish, Sen. Dan Weinberg, D-Whitefish, and a host of Whitefish residents and DNRC representatives were on hand to watch Whitefish take a huge step toward its future. The city announced that it will take the lead in implementing a plan to manage development and conservation on 13,000 acres of surrounding state-owned school trust lands. In doing so, Whitefish has an opportunity to set a precedent for how other Montana cities handle their trust lands in the future.

As with the new park, the multi-million dollar Wave Aquatic Center, the Whitefish skatepark, and the multi-million dollar Central School Auditorium in the works, the trust lands project relies on strong partnerships between the city of Whitefish, its citizens, and private local donors.

More than 5 million acres of school trust lands were given to the state by the federal government in 1889, with the mandate that they help provide money for the state’s school system. Two years ago, the DNRC began planning to sell such lands to developers in areas where property values were high, such as Whitefish, in order to generate more money for schools.

The proposal to sell the public lands outraged Whitefish citizens, more than 200 of whom gathered at the DNRC’s meetings designed to present state plans to the community. In September 2003, the state land board forced the DNRC to work with Whitefish residents, forming the Whitefish Trust Land Plan Advisory Committee. The advisory committee created the Whitefish Neighborhood Lands Plan, a guide to what Whitefish’s citizens want done with the school trust lands, and how to achieve those goals and still satisfy the mandate to make money for state schools.

The plan represents a community consensus about which areas are acceptable for development, trails, conservation and other uses.

Once the plan was finished, implementing it became the trick.

The plan proposed selling easements on lands the community didn’t want developed into subdivisions, or preferred to have developed into trails, as a way of meeting the school funding mandate. Where money to purchase the easements would come from, who would hold them, and who would manage the property into the future were the key unresolved questions.

Weinberg and Jopek stepped in about six months ago as liaisons between the city, the public and the DNRC. Eventually all sides agreed to begin implementation with the public trail system outlined in the Whitefish lands plan, for which the city would hold the easements, to be paid for with private donations.

Weinberg, who successfully directed the effort to create The Wave, which took in millions in donations, says he’s received assurances from local citizens (who are not yet willing to be named) that the money will be forthcoming.

But the one-time price of the easement for the trail is not yet known, according to Bob Sandman, Northwestern land office area manager for the DNRC. Sandman says the DNRC must balance historic revenues from trust lands with appraisal values and benefit to the community, and the process of determining the land’s historic value and the easement value is just now getting underway. Sandman says he personally believes that trust land projects that enhance communities help fill state coffers by encouraging higher property values and bringing more business, and therefore more tax revenues, to the community.

At the Sept. 6 meeting, Whitefish City Council agreed to have its staff prepare a letter of intent saying Whitefish is willing to hold easements that allow for a non-motorized vehicle trail to be built around Whitefish Lake. Not all the land surrounding the lake is school trust land, but Sandman says the largest property owners, including Burlington Northern Santa Fe, Big Mountain, Plum Creek and the United States Forest Service, have expressed interest in granting trail easements across their properties.

The trail proposal, according to Sandman, will serve as a model for how subsequent projects on Whitefish school trust lands will move forward, and for cities such as Bozeman, Helena and Great Falls, which are figuring out what to do with their own trust lands and have similar combinations of high property values and wealthy citizens who can afford hefty donations.

Sandman said that having the municipality take the lead on implementation is “the perfect fit.”

Cities, Sandman says, are set up to be able to perform long-term maintenance on such projects, and Whitefish itself has a lengthy record of public-private partnerships.

According to Jopek, an advisory group similar to the one that created the plan will work out the particulars of the trail.

Besides setting precedent for school trust land use, the plan offers a sharp contrast to how conservation easements have been used in the past, usually on private land. Typically, easements use public money (through tax breaks) to pay for the conservation of private land—land from which the public is often barred. The decision to tie up these lands is often made between the landowner and the trust that will hold the easement. The public is locked out of important decisions that will presumably affect their communities forever.

“I have a real problem with the way some of these easements are being done,” Jopek says. Both he and Weinberg say they are interested in legislation to “tighten up” easements on private lands. But, they say, the easements being pursued on Whitefish’s school trust lands present the opposite scenario: conservation easements preserving public lands for public use with private money.

“I think we’re redefining community, where community is coming to mean everybody gets a chance to be involved,” Weinberg says.


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