Workshops
November 29-December 1, 2023
Thompson Falls, MT

An Outdoor Space Reimagined in Thompson Falls, MT

The Kaniksu Land Trust is working closely with the United States Forest Service and other Thompson Falls organizations, residents, and local officials to reimagine a parcel of Forest Service land affectionately known as “The Orchard.” CIRD’s local design workshop opened up communications between the local Forest Service office and the community in Thompson Falls, making space for honest conversations about the community’s goals for the project.
Federal land in Thompson Falls, MT, also known as "the Orchard."

Background and Workshop Challenge

Thompson Falls is located alongside the Clark Fork River in Saunders County, Montana. Surrounded by breathtaking views and a plethora of outdoor adventure opportunities, the community is home to around 1300 residents, both lifetime residents and those who have fallen in love with the scenic area and moved there from other parts of the country.  

The United States Forest Service (USFS), in partnership with the Kaniksu Land Trust (KLT), is leading the effort to reimagine a 150-acre parcel of Forest Service land, The Orchard. Formally used as a helicopter landing zone and a Ponderosa Pine plantation, USFS wishes to revamp the land use (currently designated as a USFS administrative site) to create a space for the community to enjoy.

The local project team’s dedication to a community-led design process is what drew CIRD to Thompson Falls. The USFS is typically very intentional when engaging with communities; however, they saw this as a particularly important opportunity to build trust and open communication to ensure the project's sustainability and the future of the land. Although this design challenge was met with some community reservations, the USFS and KLT have been committed to listening to every concern and addressing hesitations as they arise. CIRD recognizes that this is a part of the placemaking process and having an engaged community is a huge asset – and Thompson Falls is engaged!

Community members discuss design concepts during the Thompson Falls local design workshop.

Workshop Process

Site visit: On June 30, 2023, CIRD staff visited Thompson Falls to gain a better understanding of The Orchard, as well as the relationship between USFS, KLT, and the other organizations and community members that comprise the local resource team. Engaging with these representatives allowed the design team to identify initial priorities and potential challenges.

Virtual engagement: Starting in August 2023, CIRD hosted several virtual meetings with the Thompson Falls local resource team. Heather Berman (USFS local office), Kayla Mosher and Katie Egland Cox (Kaniksu Land Trust), Kara Maplethorpe (Heart of the Rockies Initiative), and Ray Brown (Sanders County Community Development Corporation) all played a vital role during these meetings, collecting valuable information, providing community perspectives, and sharing current challenges leading up to the workshop. During these conversations, recurring themes included mitigating community concerns, prioritizing the natural surroundings and resources, and utilizing minimal management practices on the site.

Community members meet with CIRD staff to discuss concerns about "The Orchard" project.

CIRD Local Design Workshop – November 29 – December 1, 2023: Workshop activities kicked off with several community meetings, including one with high school students and teachers, mostly addressing concerns from the community. Residents vocalized suspicions of rumored future housing development on the land, community cost responsibilities, and overall hesitation towards the intentions of the project. The CIRD design team, including the local resource team, directly engaged in these difficult conversations, reassuring those who were skeptical that this workshop was intended to provide space to listen to the community to ensure their voices were represented in the final design concepts. The USFS repeated that finding out what Thompson Falls didn’t want was the valuable insight needed in this process and that a no action decision was an option.

The local project team was supported by CIRD’s design partners at TBD Studio (Omar Hakeem, Caitlin MacKenzie, and Brandon Robles), along with local landscape architect Zach Heffeman from Water and Environmental Technologies (WET)), all of whom helped provide some expert insight. The CIRD team was rounded out with support from HAC’s Manda LaPorte.

Thompson Falls Resource Team engage with community members on design concepts during the local design workshop.

The following day, the CIRD team started to synthesize the ideas of the residents, while researching potential solutions to their most pressing concerns, including rezoning the land. Although the USFS reassured the community multiple times that The Orchard’s zoning was not relevant because it was federal land, the CIRD design and resource team recognized it needed to provide some actionable items to build community trust. Alongside these resources, the design team provided preliminary design concepts that were presented to Thompson Falls stakeholders on the final day of the workshop. The concept drawings reflected the importance of minimal land management while prioritizing fire mitigation, integrating some simple, low-maintenance trails, and bringing resources, such as firewood, back to the community. The presentation focused on the value of the community’s involvement throughout this multi-step project.  

Outcomes

Overall, the workshop activities highlighted the need for continued open communication between the USFS, their partners, and the residents of Thompson Falls. The first step is affirming the community’s ability to take action on the rezoning process of the land and to participate in the USFS’s forest land management revision process. CIRD presented a wide variety of solutions and actions that the community could take to gain peace of mind that The Orchard will remain an open space for community recreation activities.  

CIRD staff present findings from the 3-day local design workshop to Thompson Falls residents.

Next, the design team consolidated the design concepts and renderings of The Orchard that encapsulated the priorities of the community, focusing on preserving the natural beauty of the open space while protecting the existing wildlife, and allowing space for people to enjoy the land. The design suggestions show ways the land could be utilized for educational, recreational, and wildlife purposes, in the heart of Thompson Falls.

Next Steps

The CIRD team will provide the Thompson Falls resource team, community members, local stakeholders, and partners with a drawing package and design book that will serve as a resource guide for the project. The design book will include a summary of engagement activities, project and community history, and final design concept drawings that incorporate feedback from the workshop presentation. The CIRD's team will also recommend potential funding opportunities across the multiple project phases.

Thompson Falls, the USFS, KLT, and the local partners will continue to engage with other communities in the CIRD Design Learning Cohort throughout 2024. The cohort program offers additional access to CIRD's technical assistance and peers learning with other rural community leaders. It also allows the ongoing work in Thompson Falls to inform national rural design conversations.

CIRD staff and Thompson Falls Resource Team after the 3-day Local Design Workshop.