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Leaders build connections to foster change

PABLO – Divisive is a word used on the Flathead Indian Reservation in the past few years to describe the relationship among community members with varying opinions for things like the Water Compact and even taxes.  

Leaders in many fields including the financial sector, law enforcement, technology, educational departments, natural resource programs, and faith based groups have noticed the divide, and decided to get involved with a new year-long, nonprofit project called Leadership Flathead Reservation (LFR). 

Judy Preston, project organizer, said the group meets monthly to bring people together with discussion, networking, and education to start working towards changing the problem. 

On Friday, the group met to talk in a closed meeting to allow open discussion about issues of concern. Casey Ryan, a CSKT hydrologist, said after the meeting that the challenges on the reservation are multi-faceted. He said he was able to talk to many people with diverse backgrounds and hear many alternative viewpoints.

“This is about connecting people who ordinarily might not meet to talk about a variety of difficult issues,” he said. 

The group continued to travel together to different sites on the reservation to learn about natural resources and energy. During past meetings, the different focuses have been about tourism, public safety, arts, culture, history, healthcare, education, business and agriculture. 

They stopped at Mission Valley Power to meet with experts in different fields from solar energy to hydro energy, they toured SKQ Dam to see how things work and the Flathead Lake Biological Station all in an effort to help them make informed decisions and build leadership skills. 

MVP General Manager Jean Matt talked to the group about how the power company is a federally-owned utility. He said that it’s a myth that the utility is tribally owned. “It’s a nonprofit that is operated by the tribe,” he said.

He shared his views on what it means to be a good leader: “I utilize experts and let them do their jobs,” he said. He added that it was also important to lead by example. 

Richard Janssen, head of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes’ Natural Resource Department, talked about the outreach work the tribe does with schools. He said the annual River Honoring project brings students out to the river to learn about the environment and culture. “It’s a way to integrate culture and community,” he said. 

Heidi Fleury with the Lake County Conservation District talked about how the program, paid for with tax dollars, promotes a “wise use” of natural resources. She has learned that people need to see results to consider a program effective. 

Travis Jordan of Jordan Solar talked about how utility rates are low on the reservation, so he puts more solar panels up off the reservation, but they could still be utilized to develop renewable energy in the area.    

During a lunch break, Preston said building ongoing relationships and networking can help leaders work cooperatively and help the community better fit together.   

She said participants for the program were selected using an application process with a focus on gathering a diverse mix of people based on industry, background, age, gender and experience. The program costs $1,200 with an opening overnight get together. The leaders meet one day per month to talk, learn, and network.

Lake County Community Development Corporation is sponsoring the event. Applications for the second year of the event are due on May 11. Applications are available at the LCCDC office or on the website at lakecountycdc.org or by calling 406-676-5909.

Preston said the idea to start LFR began a couple years ago when a few community members started talking about the fracture among people on the reservation. It was decided that bringing leaders together for ongoing discussion could be a solution to the problem. She said she felt like the group was already making great connections.  

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