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Group on mission to preserve wildland-urban interface

November 28, 2018

Located on the edge of the Buffalo Hill Golf Course, its easternmost corner kissing the Stillwater River, Lawrence Park is a central hot spot for local gatherings and Frisbee golf tournaments. It is also a highly valued wildland-urban interface.

Friends of Lawrence Park, a local nonprofit advocacy group, meets monthly to discuss future developments for the park.

Loraine Measure, an active member of the group for 20 years off and on, remembers the original park as a magical woodland hideaway with wooden picnic tables, a merry-go-round, friendly deer and roaming peacocks. She fondly recalls attending birthday parties there in the 1950s, back when Kalispell’s population was less than 10,000.

“It was always sort of a locals park,” she said.

Like most city parks, Lawrence Park has something for everyone. Today, locals and out-of-towners alike enjoy picnicking in its pavilions, playing soccer and disc golf in its open spaces, sledding on its hills, and taking walks down to the river on newly renovated trails through protected natural habitat. It’s a great place for young parents to safely expose their toddlers to the great outdoors.

“My 3-year-old son loves to feel the branches against his face as he runs through the bushes down to the river,” said Carrie Kaarre, who attended a Friends of Lawrence Park meeting for the first time in November.

The most recent pressing issue? Preserving the park’s natural habitat versus adding additional recreational equipment - in particular, a splash pad for those hot summer days when the plastic playground equipment is too hot to play on.

Such discussions often boil down to how - and whether - to preserve or recreate “how things used to be” in the face of evolving demands by an expanding local population. Meetings by conservation advocacy groups such as Friends of Lawrence Park mirror broader national and global discussions over what conservation can and should look like.

Friends of Lawrence Park formed in 1984 to promote renovation and enhancement of the park, which had evolved over time from a tucked-away paradise in the early 1900s with flower gardens, ornate fencing, manicured lawns, wooden playground equipment and picnic tables to a gravel pit, road base and Christmas tree dump, and hangout for transients and drug dealers by the 1980s.

Bobbie Truckner, an attendee at the November meeting, remembers Lawrence Park as a great place to “park” if you didn’t get stuck in the sand.

“It wasn’t fun when you had to call your dad to pull you out,” she said with a laugh.

In the 1980s, the Kalispell Parks and Recreation Department, armed with a 5,000 donation, and the final celebration of his life was, appropriately, held in Lawrence Park.

Members who remain are faced with determining who will lead and who will follow, who will keep the books and who will maintain the history. Most importantly, they are revisiting the group’s mission - including how to compellingly communicate that mission to others. The group has almost no online presence, and its meetings are sometimes as hard to find as the park itself, unless you know where you’re going.

Gail Steele, Downey’s daughter and one of the group’s original founding members, attended the November meeting after decades away raising her children and pursuing a career as an occupational therapist.

“I would like to think that community projects like Lawrence Park help to counter-balance the bitter national political divide,” she said, adding that she would like to see her father’s conservationist mission continue to shape development plans for Lawrence Park.

Her daughter, Beth Steele, who also attended in November, agreed.

“He was hugely passionate about the outdoors,” Beth said of her grandfather. “He always wanted to share the outdoors with others.”

She volunteered to help the group digitize its records and make those records more publicly available.

The conversation over how to preserve the park’s unique value to the community continues each month. In October, Friends of Lawrence Park called for new members to help brainstorm ideas for enhancing the park with new features. Current members agree that more information and more voices are needed to keep the conversation moving forward.

Conna Bond is a freelance journalist living in Kalispell and completing a graduate degree in environment and natural resource journalism at the University of Montana.

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