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Montana Land Board backs purchase of two Flathead Lake access sites

Somers Beach
Posted at 9:37 AM, Dec 22, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-23 12:42:21-05

MISSOULA — Two Flathead Lake parcels are one step closer to becoming public property, and now it’s just a matter of money.

On Monday, the Montana Land Board unanimously approved the Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) purchase of the 15-acre Montebello Fishing Access Site near Dayton and the 106-acre Somers Beach State Park near Somers. The Fish, Wildlife & Parks Commission approved both purchases during its Oct. 22 meeting.

Flathead Lake is the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi River, but 89% of the 185 miles of shoreline, excluding islands, is in private ownership. That means the public is left to pack into the 13 public access sites around the lake where things can get pretty crowded.

The Montana Outdoor Legacy Foundation bought the Montebello property from the Mattson family and has held it until FWP got the approval and the money to buy it. The location would allow boating access to the lake and Wild Horse Island State Park.

Plans for the property include a boat launch, parking lot, and picnic area, but no camping. However, an RV pad will be attached to the parking lot to allow a camp host to monitor the property so neighbors don’t have to worry about people abusing their privileges.

FWP land project supervisor Bill Schenk said the Mattson family sold the property for $1.41 million, which is $400,000 below its appraised value.

Schenk said FWP would request funding authority from the Legislature for about $.147 million for the property, with the extra going to cover FWP’s work and the Foundation’s project costs plus 5%. The money would come from federal Dingle-Johnson funding that comes from taxes on fishing gear.

The cost to construct the ramp and parking lot is estimated at $664,000, which will come from Montana hunting and fishing license dollars. After that, FWP estimates that annual maintenance will cost about $5,000.

“The rational for the purchase is centered around the very high demand for recreational access to the lake, and this would be a very good project to help fill that demand,” Schenk said.

Republican legislators could deny FWP’s request since many have sworn to cut the budget and reduce government. Or they could use it as a bargaining chip. But the project has a lot of support including unanimous backing from the Lake County Commission.

“We have a pretty good idea of what we could typically get from the Legislature for FAS acquisition. It will affect other opportunities because a pretty good chunk of that will go to Montebello,” Schenk told the Current.

Farther north near Somers, the Sliter family has allowed the public to use the beach on their property for years and now wants to put it into public ownership. The Sliter family has owned the land since 1930, according to Andrea Sliter-Goudge, chief financial officer for Sliter’s Lumber and Building Supply.

Seven of the Sliter family were in attendance.

“It’s pretty amazing to live in this great state that protects our lands. We have appreciated the enthusiasm from the public and the environmental assessment process, and we are extremely grateful of the department for their thoughtful consideration of this opportunity,” Sliter-Goudge said. “Our family has always had a vision for access for people.”

The family did their own work to make that become a reality, Schenk said, including resolving encroachment issues, connecting the land to the water and sewer district and ensuring neighbors had ways to buffer themselves from the public.

In addition, the family has created a matching challenge grant of a $100,000 for the Montana Parks Foundation to raise money for maintenance of the park.

With its sandy beach and proximity to Somers, the land’s appraised value is $2.745 million. The potential purchase under review to see if it qualifies for federal funding.

That might take a little longer because it’s adjacent to a former Superfund site, an area used to treat railroad ties for BNSF. But it’s been cleaned up, Schenk said. A state remedial audit found no problems and the Montana Department of Environmental Quality concluded there was no human health risk, although one requirement of the purchase is that continued monitoring would be allowed.

After the unanimous vote, Attorney General Tim Fox said he looked forward to taking advantage of the beach. Being it was his last meeting as a member of the Land Board, he gave his Land Board book and pin to two of the Sliter children.

“It’ll be fun for this generation and future generations to be able to go out there as a member of the general public and know and understand that their family had a part in this. We’re grateful,” Fox said.

Gov. Steve Bullock joined in, acknowledging the memory of state legislator Paul Sliter, Andrea’s cousin, who died in a car wreck in 2001.

“You and your family have had a significant impact on the Flathead area and to make this part of the legacy is certainly meaningful not only to your family but to the entire state,” Bullock said.