Owen Sowerwine Natural Area Entrance
Owen Sowerwine Natural Area Entrance

by Gael Bissell

For the last six months, the Flathead Audubon Society board and Owen Sowerwine Natural Area (OSNA) committee along with Montana Audubon in Helena have been working diligently with the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) to renew Audubon’s authorization for the Owen Sowerwine natural area. OSNA is located just off Willow Glen Rd. on the east side of Kalispell and has been licensed by Montana Audubon and locally managed by Flathead Audubon Society for the last 20 years. The current license expired at the end of February, 2020. (Find more info on our OSNA page).

Last fall, DNRC and Audubon folks successfully restructured our last agreement with DNRC so that both Montana Audubon and Flathead Audubon equally co-licensed the 442-acre state parcel with Flathead Audubon agreeing to continue to be the day to day site manager. But as the 2020 renewal date approached, it became apparent that securing a similar license arrangement would not have been feasible financially for both our organizations given current land values. Therefore, DNRC informed us that the type, length, and cost of the next agreement would need to be renegotiated.

Background: During the last decade, we understood that DNRC would like to come up with a more permanent solution for OSNA such that the school trust fund would be fully reimbursed for the value of the 442-acre river front parcel in exchange for some type of permanent disposition of and protection of the land. Flathead Audubon, Montana Audubon and our local Flathead River-To-Lake partners worked on a number of conservation scenarios such as using BPA fisheries funding to create a fish conservation area, undertaking a combination of state and private land exchanges, or using federal and private funding for an entity to acquire a conservation easement; but, unfortunately, none of these options came to fruition. State laws and regulations limit use of some typical types of real estate transactions and various federal conservation programs are not applicable to state owned lands.

Recently, DNRC decided that it would be in everyone’s long-term interest to consider a short-term agreement between DNRC and Flathead/Montana Audubon with the goal that all interested parties work together vigorously over the next 2 years to come up with a permanent long-term funding and conservation solution. The short-term agreement would protect our uses and management of the natural area while we work on the long-term solution. Please note that DNRC is strongly emphasizing the importance of coming up with a longer-term solution in a timely fashion. If we cannot find permanent funding or a mechanism to protect OSNA at the end of the next two years, the license could expire in early 2022.

In mid-March 2020, Flathead Audubon and Montana Audubon signed a short-term renewable Special Recreation Use License (not a Land Use License) with DNRC. The new permit covers recreational/educational/research use of the natural area by all members and also covers non-members while participating in an FAS sponsored free events such as wildlife tracking and birding field trips and OSNA work days. This permit will also cover our OSNA volunteers and contractors who “work” directly for Flathead or Montana Audubon and Montana Audubon staff. Unless non-members are participating in a FAS sponsored or approved event or activity, non-members must hold a current individual recreation use permit or annual hunting and fishing license to use the property (available through FWP and/or sporting goods stores). Our agreement with DNRC also requires that we update them periodically over the next 2 years on our efforts to come up with a permanent conservation and funding solution for OSNA.

Flathead Audubon is willing to work closely with our members, OSNA neighbors, our conservation partners, public agencies and anyone else who wants to assist us in developing a permanent protection strategy that includes funding for this incredibly important Owen Sowerwine natural area. We encourage you to join our specific OSNA mailing list by emailing OSNA@flatheadaudubon.org. Thank you for all the support and we look forward to working with everyone to continue the OSNA legacy.