The potential to lose a popular access to Flathead Lake’s north shore rallies the community of Bigfork and shines a light on the issue of private property and public access to water. The access in question is a county-right-of way, running through government and private land on the north shore of the lake. There’s a US Fish and Wildlife Service Waterfowl Production Area and a state Fish, Wildlife and Parks Fisheries Conservation area, both currently closed to the public. The waterfowl production area stays closed to public access from March into July while birds are nesting.
Public Works Director for the County Dave Prunty described a right-of-way as a piece of land where the County either owns the land or has an easement on it. County road right of ways are occasionally abandoned. It’s a process that usually is prompted by a neighboring landowner, checked out by County staff, and decided up on by the County Commissioners. However, Prunty says there’s a specific state law that comes into play if the right of way provides access to water.
“The County cannot abandon a right of way that goes to a body of water unless there is equal to or better access given in the immediate area- it can’t be three miles down the lakeshore somewhere, it’s gotta’ be right there in the general vicinity to where the existing right-of-way is located,” Prunty said. He noted no abandonment request has come across his desk for the north shore access.
Bigfork Resident Dave Hadden lives near the access and has been part of an effort to keep the land from getting cut off as a public access point. Hadden said it offers year-round access to the north shore while the state and federal wildlife lands have big chunks of time where they close to the public.
“The concern that a lot of people in Bigfork have is that this has been, this is very old access, and what was being discussed was not the same or equivalent access, so, the public in general is really loathe to give up any access, and we just wanted to get on top of this before there was any formal petition for abandonment,” Hadden said.
Hadden said an online survey was put together for people to sign in support of this public access and tallied nearly 1,300 virtual signatures in 24 hours. Hadden said he’s been talking with the nearby state and federal wildlife landowners about better access to the access site. With the point made about the site’s popularity, now they need to figure out a solution to the problems with popularity, like parking.