Saving Critical Lands

Water flows from pristine headwaters in Glacier National Park, the Bob Marshall Wilderness and other wild lands into the Flathead, Stillwater, Whitefish, and Swan rivers, which all join in Flathead Lake. (Read more about the watershed in Explore our Lake and Watershed).

But before reaching Flathead Lake, the water flows through forests, farms, yards, streets, and parking lots, picking up pollutants and depositing them in rivers, lakes and groundwater.

Lands critical for sustaining water quality serve as the “kidneys of the lake.” When left in a natural state, wetlands, vegetated stream banks, floodplains and shallow groundwater areas provide a buffer zone that filters out nutrients and other pollutants before they can reach the lake.

The Flathead Lakers initiated the Critical Lands Project in 2000 by bringing together resource managers, conservationists, and scientists to explore opportunities to sustain the attributes that make the Flathead so special and that contribute greatly to our quality of life and economy: Clean water, abundant fish and wildlife, hunting, fishing and other recreation opportunities, and scenic beauty.

Check out this video, PLANTING BUFFERS FOR CLEAN WATER, featuring some of our Critical Lands riparian planting work together with Flathead River Steward Program partners. Learn how landowners are making a difference!

Critical Lands Project Goals

The Critical Lands Project is one of the Flathead Lakers’ core stewardship initiatives, a science-based cooperative project to:

1) Identify, protect and restore lands and waters critical to sustaining the quality of Flathead Lake and its tributaries.

2) Build cooperation among agencies and organizations committed to protecting critical lands.

3) Gain grassroots support by informing the public about the importance of critical lands.

We initiated this project to address concerns that adverse land use practices associated with growth and development could damage lands and waters critical to maintaining the quality of Flathead Lake.

Priority Critical Lands and the Flathead River to Lake Initiative

Congratulations to our River to Lake Initiative partners and landowners!

Wetland Stewardship AwardFlathead River to Lake Initiative partners received the 2011 Montana Wetland Stewardship Award. The partnership was honored for achievements in protecting the clean water and healthy habitat upstream from Flathead Lake.

The Flathead Valley above Flathead Lake is the Critical Lands Project’s initial focus area. It contributes the highest nutrient loads to the lake and is facing significant growth pressures.

Priorities for protection include wetlands, vegetated stream and river banks, floodplains, shallow groundwater areas, and associated prime farm lands. These are the most important areas for maintaining water quality in Flathead Lake and also provide productive and diverse wildlife habitat, recreation opportunities and scenic beauty.

Critical Lands Project partners subsequently decided to focus efforts in the Flathead River corridor from Columbia Falls to Flathead Lake, including the lake’s north shore. This focus area became the River to Lake Initiative. View Project Area Map.

The Flathead River corridor includes large tracts of functional wetlands and riparian forests, floodplains and associated uplands. River to Lake partners are working with landowners to find creative conservation and restoration solutions to protect these areas.

Accomplishments: Conservation & Restoration Projects

Project accomplishments are numerous, but most telling is the more than 5,500 acres of critical lands protected through voluntary conservation easements and land acquisitions. Most of these lands remain in private ownership, but landowners have agreed to conserve and manage them to protect clean water, fish and wildlife habitat, and prime agricultural soils.

Partners have also completed twelve stream, river and north shore restoration projects to revegetate the river banks.

More than $20 million has been secured through grants and donations for conservation and restoration projects – funding that goes directly to implementing on-the-ground projects, not project planning and coordination.

Education & Information Resources

We also inform the public and decision-makers about good stewardship practices and policies through outreach and education. We produce maps, critical lands status reports, brochures, and the River to Lake newsletter. We conduct workshops for landowners, realtors and construction professionals to help them become better clean water stewards. We also provide information and recommendations to public officials on ways to improve water quality protection in proposed land use policies.

Looking Ahead

In addition to working with partners to plan, fund and implement conservation and restoration projects, the Flathead Lakers continue to inform the public and decision-makers through outreach and education, including developing and sharing a BMPs tool kit with lakeshore and streambank landowners. We are also developing Channel Migration Zone maps for the Flathead River above Flathead Lake. These maps will help inform landowners about potential river movements.

Partners & Supporters

Montana Watershed Stewardship AwardThe Flathead Lakers brought together a diverse group of people, including representatives of local, state, federal, and tribal natural resource management agencies, scientists, conservation organization representatives, and interested individuals and landowners to work together to find solutions to protect critical lands and clean water.

A strong partnership has grown to collaborate on conservation, restoration, and education projects. To see a list of partners, please visit the River to Lake website.

Special thanks to our numerous partners and supporters, including volunteers, donors and granting agencies and foundations that make this project and its accomplishments a reality.

You can be a partner in helping keep the Flathead Watershed a special place today and for future generations. Please consider joining the Flathead Lakers or making a contribution to the Critical Lands Project: Join/Donate.