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Artists share skills by the lake, group advocates

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By Kristi Niemeyer 

for the Valley Journal

During last week’s warm First Friday in Polson, kids plunged into the still icy lake below the Flathead Lakers office in the Salish Building. Artist Jess Bouchee displayed her aqua-tinged paintings while visitors mingled with board members on the plaza in the front of the office, framed by colorful murals of the lake and mountains. 

The idyllic setting underlines the Lakers’ mission, which is to serve as stewards of the largest natural freshwater lake west of the Mississippi. “I believe in this lake and I believe in keeping it clean, and the only way we can keep it clean is through education,” says Eve Dixon, a newcomer to the nonprofit organization’s board. 

Her father-in-law, Chuck Dixon, is the namesake of a county park located on the west shore, and her husband, Charlie, grew up on the lake, near where the couple built their retirement home. “There is no other place like this,” she says. 

Bouchee, this month’s featured artist, agrees. She used a palette knife to sculpt acrylic waves, and her blue-hued paintings and photographs portray the many facets of Flathead Lake. 

For more than six decades, since its establishment in 1958, the Flathead Lakers has been a consistent voice for advocacy, education and protection of the lake, with an impressive track record of success. 

Working with a wide array of partners, from public agencies and governments to private landowners and land trusts, the Lakers have taken the lead in establishing the Flathead River to Lake Initiative and the Conservation and Restoration Program. Both efforts aim to help preserve and sustain the vast watershed that flows into the lake. 

The group is also a tenacious advocate for programs that protect the lake from the incursions of aquatic invasive species. Members have helped participate in boat inspections, create and maintain informational signage at boat launches, and partner in the annual Flathead Lake Mussel Walk for local middle school students. 

Education efforts include alerting the public to the myriad risks posed to the lake, ranging from aging septic systems to shipments of crude oil along the Middle Fork of the Flathead River, to mining development at its headwaters in British Columbia. Watershed education programs help elementary students in Bigfork, Polson and Ronan learn to appreciate the waters that shape this landscape. Meanwhile, the Science on Tap lecture series and citizen science programs are designed to educate community members and engage volunteers. 

Kate Sheridan was hired nearly two years as executive director of the Lakers and brings a background in environmental studies and community organizing to her post. She moved to Polson to pursue her other passion, competitive open water swimming. 

She notes that the pandemic dramatically affected the organization early in her tenure. “All my staff went remote and it was a really good time for us to think about what we wanted for the lake and for the organization,” she says. “I would say my board and staff has come through stronger than ever.” 

As the pandemic wanes, the Lakers hope to host more events at their office, reach out to the communities that encircle the lake, and “continue to teach people how to be good stewards.” 

The organization plans to add a development director to its four-member team this summer “to help us better connect with everyone who lives around the lake.” At the same time, Sheridan hopes to expand offerings with more educational programs “and more opportunities to take action for different advocacy issues.”

Constanza von der Pahlen, who joined the Flathead Lakers’ staff 20 years ago, serves as Critical Lands Program Director. Her role is to bring people together to conserve and restore lands essential for water quality, fish and wildlife habitat, recreation, and other values. 

Those efforts include trying to protect lands upstream that play a critical role in preventing lake pollution, “the wetlands, the flood plains, the riparian areas, the cottonwood forests – landscapes associated in some way with bringing water into our lake.” 

One such recent success is the Badrock Canyon Conservation Project, purchased by an alliance of partners, including the Lakers. The 772 acres include river frontage, wetlands, riparian areas and forests that are home to multiple species, from bears to bull trout. 

The Lakers work closely with the Flathead Lake Biological Research Station, located at Yellow Bay and affiliated with the University of Montana. Lakers board member Monica Elser, a noted researcher who works as the education liaison at the station, says the lake remains “very clear” and overall is “doing pretty well,” in part because it’s such a large body of water.  

Elser and von der Pahlen agree that the science conducted by the biological station is invaluable to understanding the lake and its complex, interwoven watershed. 

“We (at the station) are basically scientists – we provide a lot of information that can be acted on by people,” says Elser. 

In turn, the Lakers strive “to be well grounded in scientific information in any education or recommendations that we make,” adds von der Pahlen.

Learn more about the Flathead Lakers at


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