by Lynda Saul

Who Was Owen Sowerwine?

Ever wonder about the person behind a named landmark, national forest, or natural area?  How about our local Owen Sowerwine Natural Area?  A look at the headstone mounted on an erratic boulder in the back row of the Columbia Falls Fairview Cemetery reveals Owen Evan Sowerwine. Aug 1, 1912 – Jan 24, 1975. “Educator, Humanitarian, Conservationist, Friend.  His Goal and Achievement To Leave This a Finer Valley”.   Wow, what a beautiful epitaph! 

The first of four children, Owen was born in Anaconda, Montana and raised in New Jersey. He graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Class of 1933. His father retired as Vice President of the Anaconda Company. Owen spent summers near Anaconda and on Swan Lake where he developed his love for Montana.  

At age 23, he married Alice Gardiner of Anaconda (1911-1997), and Owen and Alice moved to Kalispell in 1946 after his naval service in World War II.  He retired as a US Navy Captain Commander. They raised three children here in the Flathead, including David, Flathead Audubon Society member and amazing civic human in his own right.  David described his dad as modest, gentle and very, very smart!  

From Owen’s obituary in the Daily Inter Lake, we learn of these goals and achievements alluded to on his headstone: 

President of the Kalispell Rotary Club

Chairman of the Flathead High School Board

One of 5 visionaries who founded the Glacier College and later the Flathead Valley Community College 

Member of the State Land Board

First Chairman of the Flathead County Parks Board

Director of the Flathead Health Center

Trustee and building committeeman of the First Presbyterian Church (wife Alice was a member)

President of the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce

Recipient of the Great Chief Award 

Director and founder of the First Federal Savings and Loan Association, and Influential in the founding of the Unitarian Fellowship of Kalispell  

Setting the Stage

The late 1960’s and early 70’s was a time of environmental awakening for much of the nation. It was 1969 when the Cuyahoga River, in my home state of Ohio, caught fire.  Or more accurately when anyone cared. The river had burned dozens of times before that, but in 1969 Time Magazine reported it and in 1970 National Geographic ran a cover photo of the burning river. And thus began the nascent environmental movement.   

Carl Stokes, mayor of Cleveland, where the Cuyahoga caught fire, and his brother, Louis, who was serving in congress, pushed for environmental regulations. Carl Stokes incidentally was the first African-American elected mayor of any major American City. In 1970, the Federal Clean Air Act for the first time authorized regulations to limit emissions, the US Environmental Protection Agency was created, and grade school students planted a seed in a Dixie cup for the first Earth Day. In 1972, sweeping amendments created a stronger Federal Clean Water Act. People everywhere were making the link between land use, water and air quality, and quality of life.  

Montana and Flathead

So what was happening more than 2,000 miles away in Montana and the Flathead Valley? In 1972 the Montana constitution was written and ratified granting each of us the right to a clean and healthful environment. The 1974 Montana state legislature devoted much of its energy to environmental issues and created among other things, the Montana Natural Areas Act of 1974.  In the early 1970’s some Flathead area conservation-minded locals identified a special place, a riparian area located on 442-acres of State school trust land. That designation is important because the State is legally obligated to seek the highest financial return on school trust lands. Revenue derived from school trust lands is how Montana funds our free K-12 public schools. 

This section of school trust lands, the area we now call Owen Sowerwine Natural Area, is just east of Kalispell and in the heart of one of the most complex sections of the Flathead River, an area near the confluence with the Stillwater River with intertwined channels, islands, sloughs, wetlands, and riparian forest. The area boarders over a mile each of the Flathead and Stillwater rivers, and at least 1.3 miles of braided channels connecting the two rivers.  The area is covered with cottonwood forests, and home to a wide variety of native birds, as well as other native wildlife and native plants. It was proposed by these early Flathead area conservation-minded locals to be the state’s first Natural Area. 

In the early 1970’s, the Chair of the new Flathead County Park Board, and one of the most energetic proponents of the Natural Area project, was Owen Sowerwine. Sowerwine had previously been a member of the State Land Board so he knew about State School Trust Lands. He was well known in the Flathead as an avid outdoorsman, a dedicated conservationist, and a civic leader. The State Land Board recommended that the new area be named after Owen Sowerwine. A public hearing on the proposed designation was held in May 1976 in the Community Room of the Conrad National Bank in Kalispell. The public was enthusiastic and the designation process moved forward. In 1978 the State Land Board designated the parcel for “natural area use”, and Owen Sowerwine Natural Area was established.

The official dedication ceremony took place September 9, 1978.  An article in The Daily Inter Lake the following day begins: “It became official Saturday. A wild thicket enfolded in the coils of the Flathead and Stillwater Rivers is now protected under the name of Owen Sowerwine, the longtime Flathead Valley resident and conservationist who initiated the fight to preserve the area.” The original Owen Sowerwine management plan was written in the late 1970s by the Flathead County Park Board. The forward to that plan, written by another community visionary and leader, Sam Bibler, calls on the managers “… to keep the heavy hand of man as much out of the management as possible, and to proceed as carefully and thoughtfully as possible.” 

Regarding Conservation

The Sowerwine family farm encompasses 157 acres along the shores of Fennon Slough, a meandering channel of the Flathead River near its final destination into Flathead Lake. 

In 1988 Alice Sowerwine donated a conservation easement to Flathead Land Trust on the family farm. This became Flathead Land Trust’s first conservation easement.  It took courage for the Sowerwine family to choose Flathead Land Trust in their infancy to hold their easement.

It was Alice’s son, David, who encouraged his mom to put the family’s land in a conservation easement. David had a strong connection to the land as he was raised in the Flathead and spent lots of time on the family property while growing up. He didn’t want to see it subdivided and had the vision to realize the land was a treasure for the community as open space, providing excellent fish and wildlife habitat while helping to maintain excellent water quality.  The idea of a conservation easement 36 years ago was radical. People never thought we’d run out of open land. 

This conservation vision originated with his father, Owen.  Using that first Conservation Easement as a catalyst and building block, the Flathead Land Trust has since preserved vital sections near the Flathead River, including the “River to Lake” Initiative which has protected more than 12,000 acres of land along 50 miles of the Flathead River and the North Shore of Flathead Lake. 

Speaking of the north shore, Owen helped protect yet another treasure in the Flathead.  He worked with landowners on the north shore to purchase easements from them and these easements later became the Flathead Lake Waterfowl Production Area.

Owen’s Legacy of Education  

Local, affordable higher education in the Flathead Valley started as a dream of Owen’s, chairman of the local school board. In 1960, Sowerwine voiced concerns regarding the lack of post-secondary education opportunities for young people in the valley.  A study conducted in 1959 showed that only 20% of Flathead High School graduates were pursuing higher education. Owen and 4 other visionaries were determined to create a local higher education option for Flathead Valley students. After traveling around the country to observe different models of higher education, Owen concluded that a community college was the best fit for the Flathead Valley. They successfully encouraged voters to establish the college in 1967. 

His son David reports that his Dad could get along with all types of people and was friends with everyone.  David gave me an example of a local voter who was adamantly opposed to supporting additional taxes to start a Community College. Apparently, not only was Owen able to convince this naysayer, but that person became one of the Flathead Valley Community College’s most vocal supporters.  The FVCC mission statement still rings of Owen’s values “Flathead Valley Community College promotes excellence in lifelong learning, focused on student success and community needs.” The Owen E. Sowerwine Scholarship Fund was first awarded for the 1977-78 academic year at FVCC.  The fund assists second-year students who are majoring in a social or natural science and interested in pursuing a bachelor’s degree.  

Enduring Conservation Ethic

Owen’s son David gave a little chuckle when I asked him where he thought his Dad acquired his conservation ethic.  He asked if I had heard about the “Great Smoke Case”.  Recall that Owen’s Dad retired as Vice President of Anaconda Copper Mining Company.  Through legal wrangling, the Company won in the courts again and again over the public outcry about the damages caused by toxic emissions from the Company’s smelters, including dead cattle, denuded hills, and toxic air.  David suggested, maybe his Dad was doing family penance.  I’d say that‘s as fine a reason as any to live a life dedicated to conservation and community service, especially for a practicing Unitarian.  And would Owen Sowerwine be surprised to learn that the Anaconda Smelter Stack, built in 1918, the tallest surviving masonry structure in the world with an overall height of 585 feet is now “Smoke Stack State Park” in Anaconda, MT?  I think not.  I think Owen’s life of service and conservation was just the beginning of his enduring conservation ethic now being carried out in the pursuit of a permanent conservation easement for Owen Sowerwine Natural Area. What a legacy.  

Free association poem I wrote while hiking in open space this fall and had just heard that FLT was officially pursuing a Conservation Easement for OSNA.

Owen Sowerwine
Wine Sap
Sap flowing freely
Free flowing rivers
River protection
Protecting the interdependent web
Web of life
     Life of service
     Life of meaning
     Life of purpose
Life of Owen Sowerwine
Owen Sowerwine Natural Area
Area worth protecting