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Nissen family puts land under conservation easement with the Flathead Land Trust

by KATE HESTON, For the Whitefish Pilot
| March 15, 2023 1:00 AM

The Flathead Land Trust recently helped a Whitefish family place a 24-acre, open-space property under a conservation easement.

The land, now protected from further development by Pat Nissen and his son, Jake, is adjacent to another 27-acre stretch of conservation property. According to the Flathead Land Trust, the Nissen property serves as a wildlife movement corridor for bears and other animals moving between the Whitefish Range and the Stillwater River.

The landscape is a mix of large, open hay fields as well as a small forest that provides cover for wildlife. The land is near the Stillwater River, about five miles northwest of Whitefish.

Pat Nissen said he first learned about conservation easements last summer when his neighbors hosted a dinner and spoke about an easement they secured for their property. Interested, he started looking into it. Nissen cited the rapid increase of development in the Flathead Valley as a main reason for seeking an easement.

“I could see where things were going around here and I wanted to do what I could to save at least a little bit [of land],” Nissen said.

While helping to protect wildlife habitat, easements also conserve working agricultural land along U.S. 93 while preserving the scenic value, according to the land trust. The property, situated about 1,000 feet from the Stillwater River, also helps protect the waterway. The adjacent land already under an easement runs along the riverbank.

“Of course, river systems are the super highways of wildlife, so anytime you’re conserving land near river systems you are conserving travel corridors,” said Ryan Hunter, a land protection specialist with the Flathead Land Trust who worked on the project.

Hunter said that the Nissens reached out to the organization to share their interest in completing an easement. Officials with the land trust jumped at the chance to explore conserving the land.

“We are always looking for opportunities to enhance the conservation value of previously conserved property. The Nissens’ decision to conserve their land nearly doubles the acreage of protected property in the area, to the benefit of the whole community,” Hunter said in a press release issued by the land trust.

The whole process took about six months.

The Nissen family has a lot of admiration for their land. Pat Nissen moved to Montana in 1971 from Southern California and to Whitefish in 1978. He purchased the property in 1983; it’s where he raised his son.

Jake Nissen, now 36, lives on the property and in the original cabin, next to the family home.

“Little we see in nature that is ours, getting and spending we lay waste our hours,” Pat Nissen said, paraphrasing English poet William Wordsworth.

Since buying the land, Nissen has built a cabin home, a five stall garage — where he keeps his collection of classic cars — and planted trees throughout the property.

A veteran and former Plum Creek Timber employee, Nissen raised and trained saddle horses and mules for years on the land. He said he always wanted to grow his own hay for his animals, which he ended up doing on the land in Whitefish. He and Jake would take the horses up to the Beaver Lake Trailhead, a family favorite, even before the Whitefish Trail system was created.

For now, the Nissens expressed gratitude for the peace of mind that comes with the conservation easement. Pat Nissen, now 75, lives on the property with his dog, Oso, as well.

“I just want to go to the grave knowing that [the land] will stay exactly how it is,” he said. “I have no control over anything else.”

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Land near the Nissen family property is seen on Feb. 1, 2023. (Kate Heston/Daily Inter Lake)

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Photo of Pat, Chris, and Jake Nissen at the 1992 Winter Carnival in Whitefish. Jake won the best mounted rider award. Photo courtesy of Pat Nissen.