Associated PressA group of retirees from Canada explore a nature trail just outside of Bigfork on June 25. The community of Bigfork has come together to keep the land around the trail from being developed. The power company that owns the land has made a deal with the town to keep the area out of development.

BIGFORK - Along a wild mile of whitewater river, where hillsides thick with old trees and young deer climb straight up from water's edge, residents here have found some common ground - and now they want to buy it.

"It's invaluable ground," said Andrea Goff, head of the local Chamber of Commerce. "It's a beautiful backdrop to a beautiful town, a fairly wild place within five minutes of Electric Avenue."

Fine-art galleries, a playhouse, restaurants and studios are on the north end of Electric Avenue. Near Electric Avenue's southern end is the 4.1 megawatt hydropower dam that plugs the Swan River just above Flathead Lake.

Owned by PacifiCorp, the dam is a century old.

Bigfork locals have counted the land around the dam as theirs, open space for walking trails and quiet strolls and Sunday picnics.

But the 480 or so acres that surround the dam and the upstream river are owned by PacifiCorp, and in 1998 the company hatched a plan to sell it off to a developer.

Now, in a place like Bigfork, where land values seem to have no lid, 480 acres of forest and river and big views could be worth as much as $5 million to developers.

But for locals here, keeping the land undeveloped was worth even more.

"It was never a question," said local real estate broker Rose Schwennessen. "Everybody knew it had to remain undeveloped. The question was how to do that."

Environmentalists wanted to keep the wilds wild. Kayakers wanted to keep their playground intact, a frothing stretch of river home to the annual Wild Mile Whitewater Festival. Old-timers wanted to keep their favorite stroll up the Swan River Nature Trail. Business owners wanted to keep a community amenity and drawing card that they knew helped fuel their cash registers. Music lovers wanted to keep their access to PacifiCorp-owned Sliter Park, home to the summertime Riverbend Concert Series. And everyone wanted to keep septic tanks away from water's edge.

"Everyone just came together on this one," Goff said. "We sat down as a community and tried to figure out how we were going to deal with the sale of all that land."

As it turns out, PacifiCorp pulled the land off the market almost as soon as the for-sale sign went up. The problem was, there were folks out there who thought the revenue from the sale should go to the ratepayers, who have always paid the bills at PacifiCorp. But the company wanted to hand some over to stockholders.

They went to work as the Corridor Committee, a group of individuals with widely diverse interests. But together, they shared one common goal.

"We all wanted to keep the qualities of Bigfork intact," said Elna Darrow, vice chair of the committee and organizer of the summer concert series. "This is not a town. This is a real community. When we see something that needs done, we do it."

Darrow applauds PacifiCorp's efforts to sit down with the community and negotiate, calling the company "a wonderful corporate neighbor."

"We're not in the land development business," said PacifiCorp spokesman Dave Kvamme. "We wanted to work with the community to meet their needs. We didn't want to see the land covered in big private homes any more than they did. But we weren't in a position to give it away, either."

In the short-term, residents wanted to nail down a deal that would ensure the access they always had taken for granted. They called in the Nature Conservancy, the Flathead Land Trust, the Montana Land Reliance, the Trust for Public Land, the folks who knew something about how to craft easements and raise money and broker deals. They called in real estate developers, who helped them obtain an appraisal of the land and negotiate the price from $5 million to a bargain basement price of $3.6 million.

All these talks were happening even as PacifiCorp was trying to renew its federal license at the dam for another 30 years. The company knew that hammering out a generous recreation plan would go a long way toward appeasing the locals, and having local support would go a long way toward greasing the federal permitting process.

PacifiCorp offered to continue leasing Sliter Park to the county for a nominal fee. It offered to keep up river flows for kayakers. It offered to improve access to the water, and to lease the popular nature trail for just $1 a year. In return, the townsfolk offered not to fight PacifiCorp's relicensing bid.

But the most important deal was an arrangement giving the community first dibs on the land should it come up for sale again.

After the land is listed, the deal gives the community 90 days to raise a half million dollars in earnest money. That cash will tie down the price for nine years, during which the town will come up with the rest.

In the Flathead Valley, heated debates are not uncommon when it comes to making private land public land and limiting what a private landowner can or cannot do with real estate.

"But there have been no fistfights," Goff said, "no opposition at all. That's what's so incredible about it, especially in a valley where there sometimes seem to be so many people arguing about land use."

You can see the stake in tiny Sliter Park, where volunteers built the bandstand and the Lion's Club built the bathrooms and parents built the playground and the concert series has drawn locals for two decades.

"It's not just access to water," Goff said. "It's access to community events."

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