Headwaters

Preserving a Sense of Place

How native plants help build community.

Forestoration collaborated with the city of Whitefish to design and install a native landscape within the median located on Central Avenue in downtown Whitefish.

BY MEGHAN VOSS

B efore I’d lived a year in the Flathead, a bear ambled through my backyard. “Run!” ordered my then eight-year-old as he and his two younger siblings slammed into the house, shoved up the blinds, and interrupted my dishwashing with an oversized predator lumbering mere feet from where they’d been playing.

As it made his way through my neighbor’s lot, I snapped a video and vowed never to let my children play outside again.

I simultaneously broke into a happy dance.

Because, come on. That was Montana.

This kind of parental paradox is nothing new to northwest Montana locals. No matter how many times we curse our overused snow shovels and the critters in our vegetable gardens, there’s something about living close to wilderness that also grounds us to this place. It’s no secret that living here means being part of a community that dominates our horizon lines as much as any city or property boundary.

For many of us, it’s that larger community that drew us to the Flathead in the first place.

But preserving this sense of place requires more than a telephoto lens and a 406 bumper sticker. When it comes to wilderness preservation, “it’s a dynamic thing, it’s not a static thing,” says David Noftsinger, vice president of Forestoration, a full-service landscape design company located in Whitefish that specializes in native plant restoration projects.

Tucked behind the Center for Native Plants, the in-house nursery and education center, the Forestoration landscape design office succeeds in what it works to achieve for clients. With larches standing sentinel behind and aspens fluttering before its front door, the building practically melts into the surrounding flora.

“I think we have really overstimulated, crazy busy lives,” says Shiva Solaimanian, Forestoration’s lead landscape designer. She describes glancing out her office window at just the right moment to see a hummingbird hang out on a native bergamot flower for several minutes. “Just because this one plant is here, I can have this whole intimate experience with this animal I never would have had otherwise… it gives everyone a moment to stop and be like, ‘Ah, that’s nice.’”

But as developers and landowners continue to slick off native landscapes for the exploding population in the valley, both locals and ecosystems must face an uncomfortable new reality, hinged on a truth which all too many of us are woefully unaware:
The more native landscape we destroy, the harder it is to get it back.

The more native landscape we destroy, the harder it is to get it back.

Native plants removed before a property was developed. These plants will be reintroduced once the build is complete.

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“Basically, if you’re going to start a native patch of earth, it has to start from scratch. A lot of non-native plants are really aggressive in their growth and their root structure, and they’ll grow faster than a native plant might, so you have to give it a lot of time and baby it,” says Shiva.

That’s because growing plants and building native landscapes is about more than scattering a bunch of wildflower seeds and hoping they’ll grow. Just like human communities, plant communities thrive because of soil connectivity and relationships that take time and care to nurture. These relationships inspired one of Forestoration’s most successful long-view services: working with landowners and builders over multiple months and even years to preserve native landscaping. On these projects, Forestoration digs out trays of native sod before a build even begins, then preserves them until the build is complete.

Shiva and I walk around one such group of sod trays, the stalks of dusky brown pine grass mixed with snowberry clumps and yellow-green blades of yarrow a far cry from traditional trays of symmetrical bright green turf. “It’s a really good way of keeping the native plant community intact,” she explains. “When the build is over, we put it back together in these little patches. Oftentimes it’s not enough to fully revegetate every square inch that’s been disturbed, so you can make a patchwork and then seed native grasses in between or plant more native plants from the nursery.”

Despite these successes, growth continues to outpace what Forestoration and the Center for Native Plants can realistically do, particularly when combined with the limitations of strained post-pandemic budgets. Let’s face it— very few of us have the time or means to preserve and/or revegetate an entire lot. But just as watching the tiniest hummingbird or the most massive grizzly inspires that same sense of awe, any time or care put into native plant restoration, no matter how small, is worth the effort.

“So there’s groups that work on this on a big scale, acres upon acres upon acres upon acres,” David explains, referring to the many nonprofits and foundations that work to conserve and protect large swaths of acreage in the region. “We’re looking at connectivity on a smaller scale. Every one of these little patches of native veg, to me, is where a little bird or a bee or a butterfly goes, ‘Here’s my connective habitat, here’s where I can move.’”

In that same spirit of connection, the Center for Native Plants seeks to create community by offering classes and resources for all budgets and interest levels. Whether clients are seeking a complete landscape overhaul, a simple plant list specific to their space, or a chance to connect with native flora in a watercolor class, the center is committed to preserving community and preservation of the sense of place which defines the Flathead.

Shiva throws a ball for their resident border collie, Juniper, and the dog races to retrieve it. “That’s my hope, that people will remain interested in getting out, working in your landscape, connecting to the plants that are meant to grow here. I think sometimes people—” she laughs, “myself, too—we all live sort of checked out lives sometimes, where we’re going a million miles an hour and just watch Netflix. And there’s more out there to connect with and be doing.”

Juniper races back to drop the ball between our feet. This time, I’m the one to toss it between the rows of native vegetation.

Because of course I’ll be letting my kids play outside again and again, despite the bear scat I consistently scoop out into the trees.

Because this community is a heck of a lot more than just an area code or a license plate—it reaches from the tips of the larches down into the root systems beneath our feet.

And maintaining community against all odds?

I mean, come on. That is Montana.

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