Somers Beach acquisition progresses after unanimous vote from state board

by KIANNA GARDNER
Daily Inter Lake | November 4, 2020 2:50 AM

The popular Somers Beach is officially one step closer to becoming a state park after the Montana State Parks and Recreation Board voted unanimously for Fish, Wildlife and Parks to move forward with purchasing the nearly $3 million, 106-acre property.

Situated on the north shore of Flathead Lake, Somers Beach has become a favorite gathering spot for locals and tourists alike. The prized piece of real estate is currently owned by the Sliter family, who for decades has allowed individuals to access the beach, which is technically private property.

Conservation agencies and organizations have eyeballed the property for years as a means to protect valuable wildlife habitat, ensure public access in the area in perpetuity and alleviate congestion at other access points on the lake in Bigfork, Somers, Polson and elsewhere.

Also unique to the parcel is its wide, flat sandy beach that emerges at low pool level — a feature conservation officials say is not available at other state parks on Flathead Lake or anywhere else in Montana.

Public access aside, Somers Beach is also home to extensive wetlands and riparian areas and is bordered by the Flathead Lake Waterfowl Production Area, which is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Overall, about 2,400 acres along the north shore of Flathead Lake are protected by a patchwork of Waterfowl Production Areas and FWP lands, along with private conservation easements, all of which support 229 documented bird species and other wildlife.

By all accounts, the property is a rare find on Flathead Lake, where large, undeveloped parcels are few and far between. And during the board’s meeting on Thursday, members and representatives from the Flathead Land Trust, Montana State Parks Foundation, Sliter family, FWP and other entities offered words of praise for the proposal.

Some described the Somers Beach acquisition as a “legacy project,” and many expressed thanks to the Sliter family for their willingness to offer the property, most of which they acquired in the 1930s, to the state for protection.

“It could have been condos, it could have been a Jet Ski park, it could have been a lot of things. But they chose public access,” said Jim Williams, supervisor for FWP Region 1. “This is really an exciting opportunity.”

THE PRICE tag for the property will not exceed $2.985 million, according to the most recent appraisal report. Funding would be provided by a pending grant from the Land and Water Conservation Fund — a longstanding federal program that became permanently funded this summer after the United States Senate passed the bipartisan Great American Outdoors Act — as well as required matches from Parks Earned Revenue or General License Fund monies.

Officials need to iron out several wrinkles before the price is finalized, including negotiations regarding encroachments. Officials said after these negotiations with neighbors are complete, the overall acreage of the property may end up being slightly smaller, and therefore the purchase price slightly lower.

Costs that are yet to be determined are those associated with the future development of the park, which, according to one document on the project, would be covered under a future environmental assessment and “would not be fully determined until after extensive scoping and public comment.” Regardless, officials said the area is ideal to one day offer amenities such as trails, hand-launch boat access, picnic tables, restrooms and more.

It has not yet been decided whether the site would be open for camping or day-use only and the exact nature and location of amenities and hours of operation would be decided following further assessment of the site.

These uncertainties regarding future operations and expenditures prompted a hard line of questions from Mary Moe, vice-chair of the Montana State Parks and Recreation Board.

As one example, she brought up concerns related to the long-term environmental upkeep of two inholdings on the property that are owned by the BNSF Railway Co. Both parcels were used by the company from 1901 to 1986 to treat railroad ties, which resulted in contamination of soil and water from the creosote used in the process. Environmental remediation at one of the sites likely precludes any access or development on the parcel.

Although officials have said BNSF has thus far been a good partner, Moe said she is wary of working with entities “that contributed to the challenges of the project.”

She expressed other concerns related to shoreline erosion, oversight of the property and the expected reduction in public use for the immediate future, considering individuals will no longer be able to trespass onto the property.

“I am somewhat reminded of my son wanting to buy a vintage car,” Moe said of the acquisition. “Wonderful aspects, but can you drive it?”

In the end, she said it is difficult to ignore everyone’s enthusiasm for the project and the conservation benefits it would bring. She concluded by stating “it’s just too nice a car to turn down.”

FWP’s purchase of Somers Beach must still be approved by the Montana State Legislature.

Reporter Kianna Gardner can be reached at 758-4407 or kgardner@dailyinterlake.com

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BY CASEY KREIDER