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New community trail system under construction

| June 8, 2023 12:50 PM

Just to the northeast of Bigfork, on Swan Hill, lies an undeveloped tract of land with some big history and big plans for the community.

Originally part of the Gates homestead, where Eva Gates Preserves were first created and sold, the parcel sustained a series of ownerships. The Knievel family (of Evel Knievel fame) owned the property for a while, according to neighborhood lore. Part of it nearly became a 17-unit subdivision before the economic downturn of 2008. Longtime renowned Bigfork resident, passionate conservationist and woodworker, Jack Whitney and his wife, Ursula, placed a conservation easement on the southern portion of the property in the early 2000’s.

The most recent landowners had a lofty vision for this area that laid the groundwork for a community trail system, currently under construction. Alan Horn and Cindy Harrell-Horn have deep roots in the community of Bigfork, so when they thought about parting with the property, they decided they would give back to the community. In an act of benevolence, Horn and Harrell-Horn recently donated the 236-acre parcel to the Trust for Public Land, with the intention of providing public access and community benefit.

Conservation has always been at the forefront of the project’s vision. When the Trust for Public Land took ownership, the intention was to transfer the property to Flathead Land Trust for local management with a conservation focus. Both entities collaborated with The Montana Land Reliance to place a conservation easement on the remaining portion of the property. The conservation easement, along with ownership transfer to Flathead Land Trust, came to fruition at the end of 2022. Under this legal agreement, the parcel can never be further developed, the conservation values will be forever protected, and the property will remain available for public education and recreation long into the future.

The process of designing and building a trail system takes a village, and fortunately, the village of the Flathead Valley has accrued plentiful experience in this realm. Forestoration, Inc. of Whitefish designed 4.5-miles of stacked loop trails for Harrell Forest, occasionally overlooking Flathead Lake, the Swan Mountains and Swan River. Montana Made Trails has hit the ground running this spring, and trail building is currently underway. JD Thinning, Inc. has been busily constructing trailhead amenities near the southwestern corner of the property, creating a 23-space parking lot for drive-in access to the trails. All is planned to come together for a Grand Opening Celebration at the end of September.

Accessibility is at the heart of Harrell Forest, and the trails are designed to be family-friendly with safety at the forefront. DREAM Adaptive Recreation has pre-tested some trails with three-wheeled adaptive mountain bikes and plans to hold individual lessons and group rides at Harrell Forest. The trails will be accessible to hikers and mountain bikers, but due to the relatively small acreage, the trail system will not be able to accommodate horses. In consistency with the conservation focus of the property, the terms of the conservation easement and funding requirements, motorized vehicles will not be allowed.

The vision for the project has always centered on community, and input from community members has been and continues to be an integral part of the planning process. An advisory committee of multiple community members as well as representatives from Forestoration, Montana Access Project, Trust for Public Land, The Montana Land Reliance and Flathead Land Trust share their opinions and perspectives, areas of concern, and provide recommendations to guide decision-making and management of the property.

Funding of a project of this size also takes a village, and in the spring of 2022, project partners secured two major grants through the Montana Recreational Trails Program (RTP) and the Montana Trail Stewardship Grant Program (MTSGP). In addition, Flathead Land Trust raised $40,000 from many generous donors through Whitefish Community Foundation’s Great Fish Community Challenge in the summer of 2022.