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Many in Whitefish believe DNRC looking to privatize land that for years has provided public access to the outdoors

WHITEFISH - A plan to decide the fate of state lands has raised the hackles of Whitefish residents, who worry the cash-strapped Montana government is bent on selling off 12,000 acres of wild, open recreation space.

The debate, which brought some 300 people to a public meeting Tuesday, is swirling amid a broader trend in which Montanans are increasingly being cut off from access to state lands.

"The public's access is in serious decline," said Marty Watkins. "It's problematic statewide."

Watkins, Kalispell's regional state park manager for the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, says it's problematic because residents are being hit by a double whammy. While the U.S. Forest Service generally owns the little-used higher-elevation lands, she said, the popular low-elevation lands are, in large part, owned by Plum Creek Timber Co. and the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.

The public, she said, has long enjoyed access to lakes and rivers and forests on Plum Creek and DNRC land.

Plum Creek, however, has been selling more and more of its low-elevation timberland to developers and private homeowners.

And the DNRC, operating under a mandate to manage state lands in a way that maximizes income to the state school system, has in many ways been following suit.

"The result," Watkins said, "is less access for everyone, especially access to lakes and rivers."

A fair number of those lakes and rivers lie within a 4 1/2-mile doughnut encircling the Whitefish city limits. State lands make up 20 percent of the doughnut, sprawling across some 12,000 acres.

The Whitefish-area DNRC lands are a fraction of the 5.1 million acres given Montana at the time of statehood in 1889; since then, the state has logged, mined, grazed and developed those lands, using the revenue to help fill the state's school trust fund.

Until recently, the lands surrounding Whitefish have been used largely for timber and agriculture, but also have been a favorite spot for hunters, anglers, mountain bikers, horse riders, hikers and anyone wanting to beat the summer heat in a cold mountain lake.

But as Whitefish grew and land prices soared, DNRC officials say they began receiving requests for other types of uses, as well. Some folks wanted to put their private septic systems on state land. Others wanted to buy the land outright. Developers wanted to subdivide. Recreationists wanted to make trails. Nearby homeowners wanted to cut roads across the land, and others wanted easements for sewer lines.

The requests, said Janet Cornish, covered "everything you can possibly imagine."

Cornish works for Butte-based Community Development Services, a firm hired by the DNRC to conduct a yearlong review of how best to use the state lands.

The goal, she said, is to create an area-wide land-use plan that avoids piecemeal decision-making.

But at least 300 locals fear the goal is to prop up sagging DNRC and state budgets by selling off prime waterfront property to the highest bidder.

Those fears, in many ways, are not without precedent.

In recent years, DNRC has been scrambling to maximize profits on state lands, often against the wishes of local taxpayers.

In the early 1990s, for instance, DNRC took aim at a recreation site on the shores of Flathead Lake that was leased from DNRC by the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. The state fish and game agency operated a fishing access there, and had built a picnic area complete with bathrooms, showers and an engineered sewage system.

DNRC, however, wanted more money for the lease than FWP could afford, and the area finally was taken over by Missoula lawyer Thomas Bulman. Bulman promised a tourist stop with bookstores, educational classes and displays.

He failed to deliver, however, and locals cried foul when Bulman closed the campground, boat ramp and picnic areas for months on end.

With access denied, DNRC took back the land just four years into Bulman's 20-year contract.

Today, Watkins said, FWP leases a small piece of the land for a boat ramp, but the largest part of the site remains closed. Her agency cannot afford DNRC's asking price for the entire park, she said, and the facilities FWP installed were ruined by neglect in the years since FWP lost the lease.

"That stuff is totally destroyed," she said. "What a waste. We would need a million dollars to begin again. The result is no one, especially FWP, wants to put in any capital improvements at DNRC lease sites."

And that, she said, means not only less access for the public, but also fewer amenities and services.

Watkins, who has been at her post "since Moby Dick was a minnow," says that in the mid-1980s an FWP park on DNRC land near Thompson Falls leased for $200 a year. Now, she said, the lease is $10,800 a year and growing at about 20 percent per year.

No one, she said, can keep up with the cost of DNRC land, except the private investors who then charge the public for access as a means to pay off the lease.

On Echo Lake near Bigfork, DNRC owns the last public access to the water, Watkins said. FWP can no longer hold the lease, however, and so will scale back to provide just a 2 1/2-acre fishing access. The remaining 10 acres will be carved up for cabin sites.

Locals at popular Echo Lake say the tiny fishing access is nowhere near large enough to handle the enormous demand for public lake access.

"The whole future of public access to a lot of these lakes is a big question mark," Watkins said.

The same scenario has played out on Bitterroot Lake, she said, where Plum Creek sold half the lake shore to private homeowners. Locals now cram into a small FWP park at the other end of the lake, which Watkins says "is far too small to accommodate the demand."

In addition, DNRC officials did nothing to ingratiate themselves with Flathead Valley residents when they decided to develop a square mile of agricultural open space between Kalispell and Whitefish. Throughout that process, DNRC promised to bring a technology park to the site, with high-paying high-tech jobs.

Throughout the process, DNRC officials insisted the agency was exempt from local land-use planning regulations, and only after extended wrangling did the state agree to bring the city of Kalispell to the development table. Then, DNRC refused to conduct a full economic and environmental review of the site until locals forced the issue with a courtroom victory.

At the end of the struggle, the high-tech park never emerged. Instead, DNRC has leased the land for a Lowe's discount retail center, leaving locals feeling duped.

And closer to Whitefish, where the local master plan prohibits exclusive gated communities, DNRC has ignored local culture and allowed several gates on state land, declaring itself immune from local planning efforts.

If that were not enough, even some former DNRC staffers said a state logging job near Beaver Lake just outside Whitefish "simply demolished the area." (The lake is part of the recharge source of Whitefish Lake, which is the city's water supply.)

It was against that background of distrust that 300 angry and worried Whitefish locals turned out to demand some answers before DNRC gets too far along with its planning efforts on those 12,000 acres in the doughnut.

Cornish and the DNRC told those locals that no proposals are currently on the table to sell, trade or subdivide the lands. But the public does not appear to be buying that line, and wants to know why all the planning if there are no proposals.

When asked who would make the final land-use decisions, Cornish said the local city and county planning boards would have the last word.

But planning boards involve themselves only in development decisions. If the DNRC lands are to remain timber, agriculture and recreation lands, the crowd argued, then there is no reason for anyone to be talking to local planning boards. There must be development on the horizon, they reasoned.

In addition, many at the meeting were frustrated with Cornish's claim that local planners would have the last word, when in fact the state Land Board will determine whether DNRC lands are sold or traded.

DNRC officials did not step up to correct Cornish, leading some to wonder aloud where the misleading information was coming from.

Locals speaking at the meeting said they are concerned about access, about the wisdom (or lack thereof) of selling lands for a one-time shot of income, about whether the DNRC even has to listen to local concerns. They worried about the cumulative impact of more growth, about losing local control, about existing wells drying up as more development taps the aquifer.

They complained about losing hunting and fishing spots, about running off the wildlife, about tainting the Whitefish water supply with upstream development.

They also argued that study after study has shown the booming local economy is built upon open space and recreation and wildlands and wildlife, and that paving over those amenities will kill the goose that's laying their golden eggs. They also argued that keeping wildfires away from developments that reach farther and farther into the forested fringe will cost them a bundle in taxpayer money.

They demanded to know who is making development requests of the DNRC, why the DNRC isn't conducting the same sorts of studies elsewhere, and how local schools will deal with enrollment jumps caused by additional development.

They suspect recent reports that DNRC has improperly been using school trust money to fund its own administration might have something to do with a sudden interest in high-priced Whitefish real estate.

The state officials, for their part, repeatedly noted that, in the words of DNRC's David Greer "the bottom line is the DNRC administers state land for schools. The goal is to make money."

If communities or groups of individuals want to use the land, he said, they can pay for the opportunity.

"There's ways for the community to purchase those opportunities," Greer said.

Locals already have been trying to pay for the opportunity, by offering to purchase special-use recreation permits to build trails and the like.

The DNRC, however, has declined to take the money, saying the agency no longer has enough cash and staff to manage recreation.

Although the yearlong planning process is but a week old, some locals are already gathering forces for a constitutional challenge to any land sales or acreage swaps. The constitution not only charges DNRC with generating school revenue, they argue, but it also stipulates any swaps must be made for parcels of roughly equivalent cost and size. Finding lands of equivalent size and cost to swap against Whitefish's inflated market just might prove impossible.

DNRC, however, might not have many good options. The agency must maximize revenue for schools. With state lawmakers slicing school coffers and DNRC coffers alike, sale of prime real estate such as lake-shore lots near Whitefish appears very tempting. How to get from here to there, however, remains a problem.

In drafting its plan, the agency could just ignore the locals (claiming immunity from local planning regulations) and then try to withstand the certain political backlash. Or it could work through the local planning process, in which case there is absolutely no guarantee that the plan DNRC submits will be at all recognizable once it emerges from the City Council and Flathead County commission, both of which could change it significantly to fit local needs.

"The DNRC seems to want to play ball," said Mike Jopek, chair of the Whitefish Planning Board. "They say they want to work with us. But when we press them on specifics, I've noticed the game changes. No one's sure how this will play out."

Regardless, DNRC officials say talk of a constitutional challenge is premature, and repeat that they are only trying to draft a simple plan for future land use.

That plan, Cornish said, "will not, will not, trigger any specific significant land sale, land swap or land development."

Which leaves people wondering why the plan is necessary in the first place. After all, if nothing's changing, then why the sudden need for a plan?

The spokesman for a local gun club, with some 400 members and a shooting range on DNRC land, wasn't buying what the DNRC was selling.

"We've been here since 1969," he told the crowd, "and we're ready to dig in our heels."

When the applause from his comment died down, another voice piped up from the crowd.

"Careful. They've got guns."

Reporter Michael Jamison can be reached at 1-800-366-7186 or at mjamison@missoulian.com

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