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By Betty Vanderwielen
Pathfinder 

CRC Meeting Envisions Trail System

 

Betty Vanderwielen, Pathfinder

Attendees could view the Seeley Lake Area Road and Trail Recreation Opportunities map and a list of suggestions that had already been generated. Another easel held paper for attendees to add more recommendations.

SEELEY LAKE - At the Clearwater Resource Council (CRC) annual meeting July 10 the focus was on Trails for Everyone. CRC Executive Director Cathy Kahnle called Seeley Lake the hub of a wheel with spokes going out to communities all around it.

According to Kahnle, those communities all have pre-existing trails which can form the backbone of a really spectacular, regional, trail system. Connecting them could create economic opportunities for all the communities and have the added effect of inspiring people to want to conserve their natural resources for future generations.

Kahnle said CRC does not want to dictate which trails should be included or how they are developed. The goal is for the community to make those determinations and be involved in each step of the project. To that end, CRC is in the process of designing an outreach plan to elicit the desires of the community.

Because Whitefish, Mont. is already involved in creating a similar trail system, Kahnle invited Executive Director of Whitefish Legacy Partners Heidi Van Everen as one of the speakers at the CRC meeting, which was open to the public.

Van Everen said she saw incredible parallels between what the Whitefish and Seeley Lake communities wish to do. Though the Seeley Lake initiative originated as a choice, she said Whitefish Legacy Partners came about in response to a decision by the Department of Natural Resources to sell certain parcels of the 13,000 acres of State Trust land surrounding the town of Whitefish. Five hundred people showed up at a public meeting and objected.

Van Everen said, "It forced the community to work out a plan that defined future land uses and it made us as a community have to stand up to the State and let them know we are willing to try and help generate revenue from these lands. Whitefish Legacy Partners came out of that process because one organization truly has to take the lead and keep things moving forward and stay focused and set goals and timelines."

One of the strategies that came out of community discussions was the creation of a multi-use regional trail. The vision was to create a 55-mile loop trail that went all the way around Whitefish Lake, connecting to Whitefish Mountain Resort on the north end.

The Whitefish Legacy Partners have created 36 miles of trail to date. Van Everen said, "We tried to define each section of trail with a primary trailhead and then create a three-and-a-half mile loop – knowing the average user is not going to explore much more than three to four miles – and then include a destination."

The Whitefish Legacy Partners' goal was to open a new section of trail each year. They started with a trail closest to town and used both trails and roads to create multiple opportunities for people to access and use the trails. On each trail, they tried to include variety in terrain and visual beauty, so that each area had its own unique feel. A Grand Opening took place at the trailhead as each section was completed.

"We are primarily about recreation and creating trails," Van Everen said, "but we are also always trying to make sure our work is about teaching people about conservation and the value of open lands."

An education pavilion with picnic tables was constructed on one of the trails and special programs were created for the third, sixth and ninth grade students. Members of the community can also rent the space for educational programs.

Van Everen said, "We do lots of different things – we have fitness programs, we have guided hikes – different things to draw people out."

All the Whitefish trails are maintained by volunteers. Businesses and their employees can commit to adopting and maintaining a specific trail. The Legacy Partners have also created bike patrols that wear matching jerseys and have special license plates. These patrollers check the entire trail system on a rotational basis and report downed trees or other concerns that need tended to.

Despite all the donated labor, there are still additional costs such as road grading and bathroom pumping. Van Everen said they are always looking for fundraising opportunities. Their two main annual events are the Whitefish Trails Hootenanny in downtown Whitefish and a half-marathon race in October. Other funding comes through grants.

The second speaker at the CRC meeting was Russ Ehnes of the National Off-Highway Vehicle Conservation Council. Ehnes discussed how seemingly opposite groups can come together over a common cause. He said the key is not to think of partnerships but to create friendships.

Ehnes gave the example of the Great Falls Trail Bike Riders Association and the Charlie Russell Chapter of the Back Country Horsemen of Montana. Both groups used the 29 miles of trails in the Highwood Mountains, but each considered their group's use of the trail as good and the other group's use as bad, if not downright evil, he said. They both wanted the trails to be better maintained but also knew the U.S. Forest Service did not have the personnel or resources to make that happen. If the trail was to be maintained, they would have to do it themselves.

Each group started out performing maintenance at opposite ends of the trail. A common barbeque culminated the completion of the work and members from both groups began talking to one another.

Ehnes said, "We found out we had a lot of common ground, the biggest being an appreciation for the resource."

Though they each agreed to adopt specific sections of the trail, they learned each group had its own particular strength. Ehnes said carrying a chainsaw on horseback was difficult for the riders but easy for the bikers, while transporting fence posts and other supplies was nearly impossible for a biker but easy for a pack horse.

Ehnes said, "By taking advantage of our strengths, we could get the most done with the least effort."

The two groups have been maintaining their common trails for more than 20 years now and have become good friends in the process.

Betty Vanderwielen, Pathfinder

Attendees look over the silent auction items. Pauline Wingfield was the winner of the kayak raffle.

Following the speakers' presentations, meeting attendees were treated to a free barbeque and live music. Also on hand were booths displaying information about the Seeley Lake Community Trails, the Whitefish Trail System, the U. S. Forest Service trails and on native plants and noxious weeds.

Seeley Lake Community Trails Committee Chairman Ron Cox said, "The point that Ehnes made – the part about friendship – is something to take to heart. I think that historically that has been a unique aspect of this [Seeley Lake] community."

Cox gave the example how in the mid-seventies the snowmobile club did all the grooming for the Seeley Lake cross country ski races. He said without that cooperation, there would have been no ski races.

Cox added, "That cooperation and respect has continued through the years. That's one big, giant plus for this area, the collaboration to work together."

 

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