A Lake Called Lindbergh—Land&People

Eighty miles south of Glacier National Park, Tom Parker and his wife, Melanie Judge, are making their way along a trail in the Flathead National Forest, deep in western Montana’s Swan Valley. This is lush, wild country, and they are clearing deadfall and dense undergrowth as they go. After shedding frame packs and pausing for lunch in a grove of old-growth cedars, the couple crosses a creek. Smooth boulders give the rushing water a pale green hue, like powdered jade.

Beyond the creek, bright blooms of lupine, Indian paintbrush, thimbleberry, and wild rose crowd the trail, so Judge swings her weed whacker somewhat reluctantly. Parker stops, sheathes his chainsaw, and kneels to examine recent signs of grizzly bear. One is a mound of scat, apparently the result of a meal of cow parsnip and angelica. Another is a pawed log. Evidently the same bear enjoyed a snack of carpenter ants.

Like the grizzly, Parker and Judge belong to this place. Fully at ease in this setting, they share in the stewardship of a rustic, 80-acre homestead a few miles from the creek. Judge, a lean woman with long dark hair, is a naturalist and teacher who spent most of her formative years in Arizona and California. Parker, whose roots are in Pennsylvania and Maine, has a wiry build, a reddish brown beard, and an extra-firm handshake. He has spent more than two decades here as a woodsman, conservationist, outfitter, and guide. Both have come to love the Swan Valley so fiercely that they want never to leave.

Since he arrived in the mid-1970s, Parker has been making his own informal study of grizzly bear behavior and habitat use in the Swan Valley and in the Bob Marshall Wilderness just to the east. Grizzly populations are threatened in Montana, as they are throughout most of North America. Mainly for the sake of grizzlies and other species, Parker and Judge want to help protect some prime habitat nearby. That area lies just to the east and south of Lindbergh Lake, a slender, glacier-carved gem that drains forty-two square miles of the Swan’s wildest lands. It is an area of uncommon beauty. It is also a place where grizzlies prefer to eat, rest, raise their young, and roam. “In all of my experience,” Parker says, “I have found nowhere else so deeply lived in by so many grizzlies. This is a distinctly different place.”

Parker, Judge, and many others in the Swan Valley community are working in partnership with the Trust for Public Land and Plum Creek Timber Company to conserve this place for the public. Over the next three years, they want to convey a substantial part of it–about 2,500 acres of lakefront and adjacent forest–from Plum Creek, the current owner, to the U.S. Forest Service. In that way, the property can remain undeveloped and can be managed permanently as part of the Flathead National Forest.

This ecologically rich valley also has geological beauty. About 12,000 years ago, the Swan was carved and scoured by long tongues of glacial ice pushing south between parallel mountain ranges. Two rows of saw-toothed peaks sandwich the Swan, and they rival in ruggedness the Grand Tetons of Wyoming and the summits of the Swiss Alps. The narrow valley itself is a dense, towering mosaic of cedar, birch, lodgepole, and ponderosa pine, of larch, spruce, and Douglas fir. Its floor is laced with bracken ferns, honeysuckle vines, glacier-carved pools, and lakes.

“Lindy ’27”

Lindbergh Lake is just as handsome now as it was more than seventy years ago, when it had a different name. Charles Lindbergh flew over it then, and he felt compelled to circle several times. He was touring the United States alone in his celebrated single-engine plane, the Spirit of Saint Louis, after his historic transatlantic flight from New York to Paris. Weary of hopping from city to city, Lindbergh landed in the copper-mining town of Butte and asked his hosts to find the lake he had marked on his map. He decided to go back to it and take a break from the tour, camping along the shore, canoeing and hiking for two weeks. Elbow Lake was soon renamed in his honor. A boulder at the lake’s north end still carries a weather-worn, hand-carved inscription that reads, “Lindy ’27.”

As Lucky Lindy once did, modern-day campers, hikers, and boaters make their own pilgrimages to this place. Now the visitors come in all seasons to savor the snowy, jagged peaks of the Swan Mountains to the east. In summer, they swim and paddle. Well into fall, they hike the south-end trails leading to Grey Wolf and Crystal Lakes in the Mission Mountains Wilderness. In winter, they bring cross-country skis to glide across glassy surfaces, watching the elk and taking in a vertical wonderland of glittering white. For generations, the Forest Service has looked after the public sections of land around Lindbergh Lake. But as a consequence of checkerboard land grants the federal government made to railroads in the West in the 1860s, other large sections of surrounding timberland belong to Plum Creek, a now-separate and independent successor of Burlington Northern. To carry out the Lindbergh Lake transaction, Plum Creek has granted a three-year, phased option to TPL. The next steps will depend on Congress. In order to pay Plum Creek the appraised, fair-market price for these acres–estimated to be between $12 and $15 million–TPL and its partners in the project are asking Congress to approve allocations from the Land and Water Conservation Fund. However, since competition for this federal conservation money is stiff, it could take three congressional budget cycles to raise all of the needed cash. The option agreement requires TPL to show progress each year in acquiring the funding. In return, Plum Creek has promised not to log the land or sell it to other interested parties.

Support From All Sides

Montana Governor Marc Racicot, U.S. Representative Rick Hill, Senator Max Baucus, and Senator Conrad Burns, who sits on the Senate subcommittee that will determine funding, all actively support the project. So do the Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Missoula County Commissioners, and such community and conservation groups as Five Valleys Land Trust, Trout Unlimited, and Defenders of Wildlife. Because it has many special attributes–rare plants, wetlands, scenic lakeshore, and critical habitat for both threatened and endangered species–the Lindbergh Lake project gets a high-priority ranking from the Forest Service. Such a ranking usually carries weight on Capitol Hill. If the Montana project receives the necessary funding from Congress, then about three-fourths of Lindbergh Lake’s ten-mile shoreline and much of the immediate surrounding lands will be brought under federal protection. “Lindbergh Lake is a good example of how we can work with local communities to protect public values and still realize an economic return from our lands,” says Jerry Sorensen, Plum Creek Timber’s regional manager of land use planning. The largest private landowner in Montana, with 1.5 million acres, Plum Creek has been taking a more comprehensive look at its timberland resources in the state, preparing to dispose of tens of thousands of acres that could serve some better purpose than long-term timber management. In disposing of properties such as the Lindbergh Lake parcels that have high public value for wildlife, recreation, and water quality, Sorensen says Plum Creek’s preference is to “sell to a conservation buyer rather than to a developer.” Once the community’s keen interest in Lindbergh Lake became clear, Sorensen says, “We decided to step back, be patient, and go through the process to accomplish that.” This process has proved that Swan citizens care deeply about their valley and want to preserve its wild, rural character.

“For many independent reasons, people have come together to support this project,” says Maddy Pope, who heads TPL’s Northern Rockies Project Office. “They realized that it would be for the benefit of the whole community. I believe Plum Creek was responsive to their concerns.”

Several of those reasons have to do with development. If the Plum Creek holdings were to be sold to private developers, public recreation on and around Lindbergh Lake would be curtailed. Some people feared the area might become an elite resort or a Lake Tahoe-like tangle of mansions, marinas, condos, and commercial enterprises. Examples of development’s unwanted consequences are as close as next door. On the far side of the Mission Mountains lies the wide and fertile valley of Flathead Lake with its sprawling boomtowns of Whitefish, Kalispell, Bigfork, and Polson. Once the richest hunting grounds of Salish, Kootenai, Blackfeet, and other American Indians, the Flathead Valley is now rapidly turning urban.

Wildlife Haven

While the Flathead’s population recently has climbed at double-digit annual rates to exceed one hundred thousand human inhabitants, the Swan Valley still has only about five hundred. Compared with the Flathead, the Swan attracts far fewer tourists and wields far less economic and political clout. But the lands and waters of the Swan have enormous ecological value. The Swan furnishes critical habitat for great gray, boreal, barred, and northern pygmy owls; pileated woodpeckers; and sandhill cranes. Mule deer and moose live here. So do mountain lions, lynx, pine martens, wolverines, and snowshoe hares. The Swan River and its tributaries provide essential spawning places for many kinds of fish–among them some of America’s strongest surviving populations of bull trout, listed this year for federal protection as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.

Grizzly bears depend on the area around Lindbergh Lake as a critical link between the Mission Mountains and the Bob Marshall Wilderness. Development could destroy the link and perhaps doom the small grizzly population that remains here, currently estimated at only twenty bears. To promote recovery of this threatened animal, the federal government has designated the area around the lake as the Upper Swan Valley Grizzly Bear Linkage Zone, thus being worthy of special conservation measures.

“These lands are critical to the survival of the grizzly bear in both the Swan Valley and the Mission Mountains,” says Christopher Servheen, who coordinates grizzly recovery efforts for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “A lot of what we know about these bears we have learned right here in this valley.”

Essential pieces of that knowledge have come from Tom Parker and Melanie Judge, the naturalists. They have helped others in the Swan Valley come to appreciate why protecting the drainage to the east and south of Lindbergh Lake is so vital. When it’s springtime in the Rockies, that drainage may be as close as grizzlies can get to heaven. They awaken, leave their dens, and refuel amid the creeks, draws, and clusters of sun-bathed glacial pools called potholes. “Everything greens up sooner around the potholes,” says Judge. “The cow parsnips get the digestive tracts of the grizzlies going again.”

Developing the Plum Creek lands around Lindbergh Lake most likely would mean degrading the creeks and destroying the potholes–a huge and irreversible mistake, Parker warns. “All wildlife and forests depend on some level of disturbance,” he says. “But in a place like this, where the grizzly bears feed and raise their young and rest, only so much disturbance can be absorbed before the core habitat is compromised. Once we go beyond that threshold, I’m afraid we will drive the grizzlies out of this country forever.” Many people here don’t want to drive the grizzlies out. Indeed, the Lindbergh Lake effort is an indicator of growing hope that humans and grizzlies can coexist peacefully in the Swan Valley.

A Community Comes Together

Such attitudes were far less common a decade ago, when this valley was a rather unhappy place, with residents bitterly divided over natural-resources issues. As in many towns of the rural West, timber harvests were declining sharply, and unemployment was on the rise. Loggers, mill operators, developers, outfitters, and conservationists all blamed each other for such troubles. Community meetings frequently degenerated into shouting matches. “People were unwilling to listen to each other,” recalls Anne Dahl, now the planning coordinator for the Swan Ecosystem Management and Learning Center, an organization formed partly to help reduce the strife. “It was a difficult climate for getting anything accomplished. Some of us knew there had to be a better way.”

A better way began to emerge in 1990 in the form of small meetings aimed at defusing hostility. For more than a year, a trained facilitator coached participants on how to talk to each other and how to develop their own brand of consensus building. There would be no bylaws, no president, no other officers. Everyone would have to agree on the agenda at the beginning of each meeting. Everyone would get a chance to be heard, and everyone would listen with respect. Flip charts would be used to display each speaker’s main points, reducing the urge to repeat personal opinions. At the end of each meeting, new co-chairs would be chosen to guide the next.

Through these extended efforts evolved the Swan Citizens’ ad hoc Committee, a “nonofficial” public body that has helped shape community economic and social goals, reduce fire danger, protect old-growth timber, and encourage better land management practices. The committee still meets about once a month, typically attracting thirty or more participants. Over time, the committee’s members have remained adamant about keeping their geographic boundary limited to the Swan Valley. In terms of natural resources and land use, Anne Dahl says, “We talk only about what we know about.”

All the Right Elements

In the summer of 1996, there was plenty to talk about. That was when cabin owners received word of Plum Creek’s four-year plan for intensive road building and logging on the 2,500 acres around Lindbergh Lake. Selling those lands for commercial or residential development was Plum Creek’s other option. As the ad hoc group huddled, the revelations galvanized another Swan Valley constituency–the owners of some sixty recreational cabins perched along a short stretch of Lindbergh Lake’s northeastern shoreline, the lakefront’s only developed portion. “Some of the cabin owners were just shocked,” says Rachel Wright, a tireless, soft-voiced attorney who soon became executive director of the Lindbergh Lake Conservation Committee, formed in response to Plum Creek’s plans. “Development was the main concern for us,” says Wright, “even more so than logging.”

The first order of business was to buy some time. “We wrote to Plum Creek and asked for a delay in the start of any road building and logging activity while we tried to come up with some constructive alternatives,” says Greg Munro, a cabin owner who teaches law at the University of Montana in Missoula. Plum Creek wrote back, agreeing to wait. “They gave us a chance to figure out what we were going to do,” says Munro. Before long, the Lindbergh Lake committee grew to include many cabin owners, plus employees of the Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and quite a few community members–including some of the most active people on the Swan Citizens’ ad hoc Committee. From among them, a project team was organized to work on behalf of the community.

Working together, the Lindbergh Lake cabin owners and the Swan Citizens’ ad hoc Committee accomplished what neither could have done alone. After months of probing the possibilities, they contacted TPL’s Maddy Pope. “All the right elements were there,” observes Pope. “We had an extraordinary resource in Lindbergh Lake, a willing seller, active community support, and a public agency that recognized conservation of this land as a priority.” As Pope talked with Plum Creek and all the other parties involved, the idea to create a land purchase option agreement involving TPL, Plum Creek, and the Forest Service took hold. Before long, the community’s wish to pursue that strategy became the catalyst that the project needed. Those efforts bore fruit in late 1997, when the option agreement was reached.

Looking Ahead

With much of the difficult work behind them, Munro and Wright recently climbed into a small boat with two guests and headed for Lindbergh Lake’s south end, just to savor the wildness and serenity. Ospreys dipped across the water’s smooth, slate-gray surface, swooping back up to high ponderosa perches on the shoreline, their beaks filled with wiggling food. Munro silenced the boat’s small engine and let the bow glide toward the mouth of a stream that empties into Lindbergh from Crystal Lake, high in the snow-topped Mission Range. As the boat reached the mouth, the hull’s shadow startled a large school of bull trout. Both Munro and Wright leaned quickly over the side to extend their glimpse of this rare spectacle–more than two hundred shimmering, gold-brown silhouettes, all darting and tacking in unison, as if connected by invisible strings. Wright was ecstatic. For a while, all she could say was “Wow.” She said it again and again. Finally her heart rate subsided, and her voice became softer. “What a privilege to see,” she said. “A hundred years from now, I hope someone else will get to see this, too.”

Land & People, Fall, 1998
Frank Edward Allen was formerly the environment editor for The Wall Street Journal. Now he runs the Institutes for Journalism and Natural Resources, an expedition-style school for reporters, editors, and their sources. He lives in Montana’s Bitterroot Valley, about 95 miles south of Lindbergh Lake.