The Living Wetlands Interpretive Nature Trail

The upland/wetland mosaic of the area was created when ancient Whitefish Lake inundated the area, depositing lacustrine sediments. The lacustrine sediments serve to form a shallow perched water table. Water cannot infiltrate through the clay sediment. As a result, an upland/wetland mosaic has formed on top with regionally unique flora (including skunk cabbage) and fauna. Historically, the area was used for agriculture through haying, some stream channelization, and grazing by the Baker Brothers, a prominent Whitefish family.

Viking Creek, one of the tributaries to Whitefish Lake, runs through the wetland. The trail crosses the creek over three small wooden bridges.

An Outdoor Classroom

A series of interpretive trail signs have been designed to increase visitors' knowledge of the wetlands, and enable exploration of other facets of the environment. The main kiosk was erected at the trail entrance/trail parking area so that children, adults, and disabled visitors of all ages have opportunities to access the information. The interpretive signs perform multiple functions: they provide information and direction for people to find their way around the wetland; create and encourage watershed and wetland learning experiences involving science, natural and cultural history; and communicate area usage and safety rules. Theyl educate visitors about the specific functions of this wetland in the Whitefish Lake Watershed. Signs along the interpretive trail are placed low—and in front of—natural features and interesting or unusual flora providing information on various facets of the wetlands and encouraging sustainable visitor interaction within the wetland surroundings. An important educational component of the project addresses how—through an open dialogue between diverse constituencies—a solution was created to allow economic expansion while providing natural resource protection.

See pp. 36-37 of "A Teacher's Guide to Outdoor Education Sites and Programs in the Flathead Region" for educational information.

To date, WLI has partnered with Whitefish High School Project FREEFLOW and advanced chemistry classes to conduct field trips and research in the wetlands. This partnership is expected to grow, and with such close proximity to town, elementary, middle school, and colleges will be able to use the trail as an extended classroom. A school bus parking zone has been developed and the trail is designed to be fully ADA compliant easing visitor access. WLI also hosts 700 wetland visitors annually as part of the Road Scholar/Elderhostel programs.

Due to high wildlife value and water quality considerations, this is a walking trail only with no motorized use. Although the types of uses are limited to those on foot or in wheelchairs, the reach to visitors that benefit is very broad. The trail facilitates all ages of school children, college students—in particular those studying natural resources and biological sciences, and members of the senior community throughout Montana. Additionally, it is an appealing site for specialty groups such as the Audubon Society, the Watershed Education Network, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality Wetlands Council, the Crown of the Continent Geotourism Council, Montana bird watching groups, wildlife biologists, plant biologists, wetland biologists, botanists, hydrologists, and natural resource managers.

WLI has partnered with The Lodge at Whitefish Lake to conduct an annual fundraiser, the "Whitefish Wine Auction" www.whitefishwineauction.org. Proceeds from the event will be used as a cost-share for maintaining the trails. Proceeds from future fundraisers will go towards property insurance and taxes, restoration, monitoring, and other needs, as prioritized by WLI's board of directors. The fundraising event, which is growing in popularity, ensures that the area will receive the appropriate level of resource management in the future.

The project enjoys support from the City of Whitefish, Flathead Community of Resource Educators, Flathead Valley Community College, Montana Department of Environmental Quality, Montana Department of Resources & Conservation, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, Montana Watershed Coordination Council, National Parks Conservation Association, Whitefish Chamber of Commerce, Whitefish Convention & Visitors Bureau, Whitefish Legacy Partners, Whitefish Mountain Resort, local school districts, several local homeowners' associations, and numerous local businesses and organizations.