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Jack Whitney of Bigfork recently placed 120 acres of his prime real estate near the town into a conservation easement, giving up his right to develop the property in exchange for knowing that some of the qualities of the area will remain unchanged for future generations. Local residents love of the views of Bigfork have led to 2,000 acres in and around the town being protected by conservation easements in the last few years.
Photo by TOM BAUER/Missoulian

More Bigfork residents, concerned about unrestrained development, preserve the view with conservation easements

BIGFORK - When you stand above the tiny village of Bigfork, looking toward the Swan Crest, the view is straight off the postcard rack.

Houses and shops snuggle tight against the curl of the bay, ringing cold, clear waters where the Swan River spills into Flathead Lake.

Beyond the village, an unbroken forest marches up into fields of scree and rocky, snow-topped peaks.

"You cannot overestimate the value of that view to this community," said Andrea Goff, executive director of Bigfork's Chamber of Commerce. "To have that backdrop up there, it's just a tremendous asset to all of Bigfork. The water, the village with the mountains in the distance, the pine trees everywhere, the whole scene. It's what keeps this place going."

It keeps things going, she said, because "you just don't get that anywhere else. It makes us special."

But, increasingly, you don't necessarily get it in and around Bigfork, either. The village, like much of northwest Montana, has been discovered.

Bigfork has become, Goff said, a destination for retirees and those looking for a second home. The money those newcomers are willing to spend on real estate seems to have no limit, and Bigfork property has become some of the most expensive dirt in the state.

What were big open spaces are fast becoming big condo complexes, as locals cash in on their landscape.

Which makes it all the more mind-boggling to consider is that a guy like Jack Whitney would give up his right to develop 120 acres of prime real estate, instead opting to preserve that picture-postcard view.

"When I came home again from WWII and looked out over Flathead Lake and up at these mountains, I said I didn't ever want to leave again," he said. "And I didn't. I'd like for the next generations to have that same feeling."

At 87, Whitney has lived in Bigfork longer than any other resident.

It is not, he admits, the same town he grew up in.

"There isn't a day goes by around here that you don't hear a building going up," he said. "I've been lucky enough to own some beautiful land, and I didn't want a bunch of millionaires going up there and building it all up."

And so, as 2003 came to a close, Whitney and his wife, Ursula, placed 120 acres into a conservation easement, precluding future development on the land. They are a very special 120 acres, perched right above town, looking over the popular Swan River Nature Trail.

It's hard to say exactly what the land would have been worth had he sold it to developers - suffice it to say it would be valued in the millions of dollars.

"But I never looked at it that way," Whitney said. "My mind doesn't work in millions; I can't really grab onto numbers above about 250,000, anyway.

"It wasn't about money. It was about that land. It was part of my life. I know every foot, every inch of it. It really pleases me to no end, the idea that the next generation will see it as I did."

Whitney's conservation easement has caught the attention of the village, in large part because, without its protections, that view from above would be altered dramatically. His land, after all, makes up a big chunk of that backdrop the Chamber of Commerce is so excited about.

But it's important to note that Whitney is not alone. In the past few years, a whopping 2,000 acres in and around Bigfork have been protected by conservation easements, even as real estate prices have continued to climb.

The reason, Goff said, is simple: "It has to do with the kind of people who choose to live here."

It's something of a fortunate circle, she said. People are drawn to the area because of the beauty, and so they create easements to preserve that beauty. By preserving that beauty, she says, they help sustain an environment that draws more people.

They come for the river and the lake and the mountains, she said, for the groomed cross-country ski trails and riverside nature trails.

Old-timers like Whitney place easements on their land, Goff said, "because they're proud of it, of what it was and what it still is. They want to preserve that legacy."

Newcomers like Gladys Merlette place their land in easements "because they were drawn by the way this place looks, and they want to retain that look."

"We moved here in August," said Merlette, newcomers from Utah. "The wildlife here is amazing. We've had deer and eagles and bears and all kinds of birds. I sit at my table eating dinner watching the deer outside eat their dinner."

She and husband John put their 70 acres into a conservation easement almost as soon as they moved in.

"We want to make sure that this is here for the wildlife in the future as more and more of their range is developed up," she said.

Either way, Goff said, whether old-timer or new-comer, "what's really remarkable is the fact that they're not cashing in like people might expect. The conservation ethic and commitment to community is very strong in both groups. That's a real testament to what this town is all about. That's what's so refreshing about living here."

And what's so refreshing about working here. Most of the conservation easements in and around Bigfork have been organized by the Montana Land Reliance, a statewide group that keeps a satellite office in the tiny village.

"Bigfork is different," said Amy Royer, regional director for the MLR. "Bigfork is a town full of people from all walks of life and all political persuasions who still seem to agree that conservation is an important part of their future."

The MLR held its first annual "neighborhood conservation" meeting in Bigfork back in 2000, hoping to identify undeveloped lands that could create links of open space. Those meetings have produced easement projects, and those projects have, in turn, produced even more easement projects.

An example: when Jack Whitney's brother, Art, died a few years back, he left behind a request that the family place 138 acres into an easement. Three years later, Jack tossed in 120 of his own.

Sure, Royer said, landowners who opt for an easement get a bit of a tax break, get a leg up on estate planning. But, in places like Bigfork where the land is so very expensive, the perks don't come close to offsetting the value wrapped up in the easement.

"Most people in Bigfork don't do this for financial reasons," she said. "They do it out of a commitment to the land and a sense of community responsibility. They understand the value of the land if they just subdivided and sold, but, for them, that would break their hearts."

Whitney, who grew up "so poor that poverty was just a long, black tunnel with no light," made his living building cabinets and running a small mill. Along the way, he said, his heart was broken more than once, just watching all the growth that's eaten up favorite hunting and fishing spots.

He doesn't want that to happen to his own land, he said, land where he "cut Christmas trees for years just to pay the taxes."

"I've always been a conservationist," Whitney said. "I guess I was born that way. This place takes care of us, so we need to take care of it."

Decades back, he was instrumental in setting aside the Jewel Basin roadless area on the mountain above Bigfork. Now, he's setting aside his own land.

"Good conservation," he said, "is good for business in the long run."

Just ask newcomer Gladys Merlette. "We could have moved anywhere in the world," she said.

"We chose Bigfork. We want other people to be able to choose it for the same reasons 100 years from now. We want them to be able to enjoy what we're enjoying."

Sure, Whitney's sold off some of his land to pay the bills that stack up, what with Ursula in the nursing home these past few years. And he's reserved the right to do a bit of logging on the land he's recently set aside. He also kept two 40-acre chunks for himself, just in case he ever needs a couple million in a hurry.

But, to the extent that he's able, he'll keep the rest wild, "and I hope I never have to sell any of it. I hope we can get conservation easements for that last 80 acres too, someday."

"Someday," he predicted, "from Bigfork to Kalispell it's going to be one big town, and people are going to be wishing more people had seen fit to set some space aside."

And Royer, for one, thinks the next generations will thank people like Whitney for not cashing in.

"I don't know about you," she said, "but when I go home to where I grew up, I can't find the place I grew up. People like the Whitneys make it possible to go home again. To me, that's pretty powerful stuff."

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