Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Smith Lake sees improvements as progress continues on expanding Whitefish Trail

Whitefish Pilot | September 13, 2023 12:00 AM

While Whitefish Legacy Partners enjoys the afterglow of a successful 2023 Whitefish Trail Hootenanny, the nonprofit continues its work to ensure conservation, recreation and education on the lands around Whitefish for future generations.

Whitefish Legacy Partners’ latest efforts toward “closing the loop” of the Whitefish Trail involves the area around Smith Lake and Swift Creek at the north end of Whitefish Lake. They are trying to establish an easement and have recently made improvements around the lake.

In partnership with the City of Whitefish, Whitefish Legacy Partners is pursuing the purchase of a 615-acre public recreation use easement from the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.

Rather than buying the land, Whitefish Legacy Partners is interested in removing the development rights, thus ensuring the public's right to access the lands, while the DNRC will continue to oversee sustainable forest management.

“DNRC maintains ownership of the land so we don’t lose public lands to private ownership, we just remove the development rights,” said Whitefish Legacy Partners’ Director of Development Cynthia Ingelfinger. “We’re trying to maintain that open space from Smith [Lake] to Swift Creek.”

The acreage is State Trust Land managed by the DNRC which practices forest management on the land. As with all State Trust Lands, the proceeds go to support Montana’s public education institutions.

“We’re working with the City of Whitefish and Legacy Partners to create a similar recreation easement like we have in the Beaver Lake area. It would encompass the north end of Whitefish Lake,” said Dave Ring, Stillwater Unit Manager with the Montana DNRC. “That public recreation use easement would then ensure no development would occur on these lands.

Ingelfinger said the easement will also allow for recreational improvements and use in perpetuity while protecting public access, water quality, wildlife habitat and scenic viewsheds, all while keeping the working forests safeguarded.

“This DNRC land, as most of the DNRC land is around Whitefish, is State Public Trust Land, so they have a mandate to raise money for the permanent public education endowment,” Ingelfinger said. “People think public lands are protected, but these are not protected. They could be Home Depot or they could be expensive houses.”

That mandate means the DNRC can do what they think will bring in the most money. In some places, that means making lease agreements to bring in revenue. In Kalispell, businesses including Costco, Lowe’s and Cabela’s are located on leased State Trust Land.

Some lands are leased to oil and gas companies. In other parts of the state, timber is the main source of income.

“If we can remove the development rights from Smith Lake, then they can’t choose selling it for development as the way they’re going to raise money for the public education endowment,” Ingelfinger said. “They can continue to do forestry and that money goes into the public education endowment, but also the money that we pay them to remove the development rights for that easement goes right into the public education endowment, as well.

“It's like a win–win for public schools because they’ll get more money,” Ingelfinger said. “It's a win–win for recreation because it keeps… that historic hunting, fishing, camping, hiking, biking access to Smith Lake open and it protects this important wildlife habitat from development.”

The area is at the base of the Whitefish Range which is home to grizzly bears, deer and elk, and the lake supports a range of waterfowl. Additionally, the flat plateaus with gorgeous views that dot the area around Smith Lake would be prime development land.

“Let’s keep our public lands open and public,” Ingelfinger said. “People have been recreating on these lands for generations and we just want to maintain that. And by doing that, protect the land for conservation, wildlife and for water quality.”

The process for the purchase of the development rights is well underway and includes a 30-day scoping, a public input period and a review by an interdisciplinary team of a variety of expert scientists.

The DNRC is completing the environmental analysis and is currently seeking public comment on the proposed recreation easement purchase. The project has been modified since the original proposal. It involves new trails between Smith Lake and Swift Creek and does not include plans to connect to North Beaver.

WHILE THE easement process continues, Whitefish Legacy Partners has worked with DNRC to make improvements to the Smith Lake area.

Ingelfinger said they recently installed a dock, a viewing platform and a bench, and rebuilt the trail that leads to the south end of the lake.

“It used to be kind of a luge run trail down to the earthen dam, and people would scoot off the edge right from the parking lot down to the lake and none of it was very sustainable and it was causing erosion,” Ingelfinger said. “But it was the only easy way to access the lake because the rest of the lake has a steep shoreline.”

The new route takes a less direct approach to the lake. The trail is now more sustainable, will experience less erosion, and with new crib steps, is easier for people to use. The hope is that people will walk down the trail with stand-up paddle boards or kayaks and access the lake at the dock.

“We’ve been able to move people away from recreating on the dam that’s built there,” said Ring. “That dam has a non-permeable label that we cannot risk getting punctured so keeping people off of it ensures the longevity of the dam.”

Protecting the dam, along with the entire acreage is crucial for the health of Whitefish Lake since Swift Creek, the largest tributary to the lake, drains 64% of the total watershed along the Whitefish Range.

“This is the first step in an effort to protect the whole north end of the lake,” Ingelfinger said.

WLP is hosting an event at Smith Lake on Thursday, Sept. 21 at 6 p.m., to celebrate the improvements that have been completed. There will be a ribbon cutting ceremony and refreshments.

For more information, contact Cynthia Ingelfinger at


The existing kiosk at the Smith Lake area. (Julie Engler/Whitefish Pilot)


The new dock and stairs at Smith Lake. (Julie Engler/Whitefish Pilot)


Smith Lake as seen from the new dock on Sept. 1, 2023. (Julie Engler/Whitefish Pilot)