Group Members, Native Leaders Define Future for Out of doors Recreation in Bigfork Space

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Community members and local environmentalists met at Bigfork High School on November 16 to discuss another path for the city’s outdoor recreation economy as part of Bigfork’s Recreation Connection Action Plan (RCAP) community input meeting. The organizers, representing government agencies and non-profit organizations in Flathead Valley, emphasized the importance of community input in setting priorities for outdoor infrastructure and maintenance in the region for the future. Throughout the evening, organizers and attendees discussed issues such as trail construction and maintenance, parking, access to water, and balancing local concerns with seasonal tourism needs.

“We really need a bigger plan for outdoor recreation in the Greater Bigfork area,” said Amy Grout, manager of Flathead Lake State Park, in an opening address to the 30 or so attendees.

The Bigfork RCAP is a project of the Bigfork Outdoor Recreation Alliance (BORA), a coalition of community groups in the greater Bigfork area organized by the Montana Access Project. BORA members include US Forest Service, PacifiCorp, Flathead Lake Lodge, Community Foundation for a Better Bigfork, Bigfork Chamber of Commerce, Bigfork Rotary, Whitney Family, Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, Flathead Land Trust and the trusts for public land. The Montana Access Project is a Whitefish-based nonprofit organization that brings together local governments, community organizations, businesses and public agencies to help the communities that serve as access points to Montana’s natural landscape create sustainable frameworks for outdoor recreation .

According to the Recreation Alliance, the Bigfork Action Plan, which will serve as a “community-led roadmap,” will list “existing and potential recreational goals/links” in the Bigfork area and “recommend goals and targets for sustainable recreational use.”

At the community meeting, Grout and Diane Conradi, attorney and founder of the Montana Access Project, emphasized the importance of gathering input from the community before the group proceeds with a formal plan. Conradi emphasized “community vitality and health” as BORA’s top priority, distinguishing the project from others in Montana that focused on development and tourism.

“It’s about being able to live, work and play in a community,” said Conradi.

After a brief presentation by Conradi and Grout, attendees were invited to share their vision for the future of outdoor recreation in Bigfork and the natural areas to which the town serves as a gateway, namely the north shore of Flathead Lake, Echo Lake and Jewel Basin, Crane Mountain and Woods Bay. Participants emphasized the need for expanded bike lanes in and around Bigfork, public beach and fishing access, dog-friendly open spaces, trail maintenance, weed control and more accessible parking.

Byron Whitney, whose family has lived in Bigfork since the early 20th century and owns land through which the Swan River Nature Trail passes, spoke about the deterioration his family had seen along the trail during the pandemic. While planning new infrastructure projects is important, maintaining and managing existing trails is a priority for his family, Whitney told Beacon.

Although leaders at the meeting emphasized that the project would prioritize the needs of Bigfork residents, some participants expressed skepticism about the prospect of driving visitors to the area, reflecting a backslide toward development and increased tourism affecting communities throughout the Flathead Valley. Throughout the night, attendees emphasized that the remoteness and tranquility of the Bigfork area was one of their main concerns.

One participant questioned Grout about BORA’s intentions, saying that he believed the most sustainable way forward was to leave the infrastructure as it is, rather than undertake renovations and improvements that could increase visitor numbers. Grout emphasized that tourism is an inevitable part of the Flathead Valley’s economy and that without a plan for the future, the trails and natural access points would eventually decay, rendering them inaccessible to locals and visitors alike.

“We have to find a middle ground. We have different opinions,” Grout told the group in a closing speech.

This winter, the Recreation Alliance will complete the community engagement phase of the Recreation Connection Action Plan before beginning planning and implementation.

The group will be hosting a virtual community meeting on November 21 from 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. for those who were unable to attend the last session. For more information, visit mtaccessproject.com/bigfork-area-outdoor-recreation-plan/ or email [email protected]