Seeley Swan Pathfinder -


By Erin Hendel
TNC Communications Director 

Shared problem solving on The Nature Conservancy land


October 4, 2018

Thanks to public meetings, growing partnerships and many conversations with local residents and business, The Nature Conservancy has learned a great deal in the four years since acquiring 117,000 acres of land in the Seeley-Swan area. Time and time again, we are reminded that conservation and community go hand in hand. Sustainable conservation needs a healthy community and healthy communities need conservation. We know that when problems come up and issues need to be addressed on the landscape, the only way they get solved is when people work together. We are grateful to be part of a community where that is possible.

Dealing with recreation issues around Placid Lake provides a key example of that community coming together. For decades, Montanans have enjoyed Placid Lake State Park as one of the crown jewels of the state park system. As that park has grown in popularity, camping along Owl Creek between the state park and the highway has also grown.

Over the last 10 years, usage has increased dramatically. Some locals report that the number of campsites has more than doubled over the last five years. Since TNC took ownership of the land in early 2015, we have seen visitation grow, with groups of campers—sometimes in very large groups—packing the area throughout the summer.

TNC’s Open Lands Policy allows dispersed camping on most of the land that we own in the region. We see visitors in the spring and summer and hunters throughout the fall. For the most part, campers respect the land and treat it well.

But such dramatic growth in a small place like Owl Creek brings a host of problems. Sanitation, resource damage and simply cleaning up the garbage some campers leave behind has consumed increasingly large amounts of TNC staff time. Some visitors have cut down trees, built new trails, compacted the ground by driving off road and created new campsites in sensitive streamside areas. Local residents have reported that they have had to extinguish dozens of abandoned campfires.

We want to make sure that people can continue to recreate on these lands but we need to make sure that recreation is safe and sustainable—for the community and for the landscape.

Community members around Placid Lake stepped up to help address the problem. Local volunteers have surveyed campsites and the Placid Lake Cabin Owners Association took the lead on raising funds to help TNC improve conditions on the land.

In summer 2018, TNC partnered with the University of Montana and Montana Conservation Corps (MCC) AmeriCorps program to place an intern on the land. Intern Charlie Dahlstrom spent the summer in the Seeley area. Along with local volunteers, he spent much of his time cleaning up and rehabilitating abandoned campsites. He also spoke with hundreds of users, completed dozens of surveys and mapped the existing campsites. This information will help guide decisions about how to manage the area in the future.

After mapping dozens of dispersed campsites in the three-mile corridor between Placid Lake State Park and the highway, TNC has rehabilitated the most damaged areas. We also eliminated sites that were paving the way to further stream and forest damage.

On one site, visitors dug deeply into a steep streambank to create makeshift stairs to a site they clearly used for washing, filling a pristine pool with garbage and debris. Working with a local contractor, we blocked and revegetated the most damaged sites and downsized the sprawling area where many people had been camping.

We established three distinct areas with clusters of campsites. We also hired a local service to install and maintain a trio of portable toilets to deal with the growing issue of sanitation. This is something we plan to continue next year but it’s ultimately a temporary solution until the future of this area becomes clearer. We will continue to monitor recreational use in the coming seasons, and we welcome input from everyone.

We will continue to work with local community members and the Placid Lake Cabin Owners Association to make sure that people can continue to use this area for generations to come. In addition, after a multiyear process led by members of the Seeley Lake community and in partnership with the Seeley Lake Regional Outdoor Center for Kinetic Spots (ROCKS), we are working towards establishing a community trail system for the Hill 16-Tuppers Lake area. Initial plans include options for skiing, mountain biking, hiking and equestrian trails.

As more people come to appreciate the beauty of the Seeley Lake area, we know that recreation here will only continue to grow. We encourage everyone to reach out to us to share ideas and alert us of any problems.

Please contact Steve Kloetzel, Western Montana Land Steward (, 406-214-2036) or Chris Bryant, Western Montana Land Protection Director (, 406-532-4477) with any comments or questions.


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