An undeveloped park in Whitefish has attracted national attention because it reportedly links Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to trading favors with an oil pipeline chairman and former executive.
Here’s some background: In 2008 and 2013, Zinke got BNSF Railway to donate about 11 acres on the edge of town for his proposed Great Northern Veterans Peace Park.
City of Whitefish planning and building director Dave Taylor showed me around the property recently. An old dirt road encircles a pond, a sizeable hill, and a dense patch of trees. An empty dirt lot takes up about a third of park’s east side.
Next door is 14-acre lot where a big commercial development project is about to break ground. Dave Lesar, the current chairman and former CEO of Halliburton, is one of its big investors.
That project’s developer asked Zinke if he would let it use some Peace Park land for a shared parking lot. In exchange, the project would build two access roads that Peace Park visitors can also use.
Some of this deal was hashed out at Zinke’s office in Washington, D.C. That set off alarm bells for Democrats in Congress. They filed an ethics complaint over Zinke entering into a private land deal with a man whose company stands to benefit from oil and gas leasing policies Zinke controls as Secretary of Interior.
The Interior Department's inspector general is looking into the complaint to determine if a full investigation is necessary. A Department of Interior spokesperson says there’s no wrongdoing.
When Zinke first pitched the park to the city of Whitefish, the Daily Interlake reported he said he wanted the space to “celebrate life - why veterans fight.” He wanted a skating rink and sledding hill, and maybe a concert venue. Plans called for armed forces flags and a plaque commemorating contributions of veterans and the railroad to Whitefish.
Today, the Veterans Peace Park remains an undeveloped lot.
"There used to be a bunch of old equipment and junk and garbage and bum camps in here, and he [Zinke]'s really done a good job cleaning those up out of the woods," Taylor says.
Taylor is standing at the edge of a proposed skating pond at the bottom of a sledding hill, which the Peace Park leases from the city for a dollar a year.
"He graded out those slopes, took the rocks out and obstacles out of there and made it nice and smooth. There’s a little jump where the road is."
I tell him I've seen kids launch themselves off that.
"I’ve launched myself," he replies, laughing.
There’s rows of seeded grass mixed with a handful of noxious weeds. A few dirt and partially asphalted roads wind through copses of trees. On the Peace Park’s northern boundary, 40 or more trains trundle by each day.
On its eastern edge, there’s the big dirt lot. Taylor says this is where the infamous shared parking lot will go. He says it’s a good fit, especially because the Peace Park’s neighbor has already been using a chunk of it for years. It’s fenced off for use by the neighbor, not the Peace Park.
"That property's parking comes onto the site anyway, so it made sense to expand some of the parking onto the Peace Park," Taylor said.
We walk past a pile of boulders and crushed rock, which Taylor says is an improvement.
"If you would have come here eight years ago, it looks a lot different than it did then," he said.
But others in Whitefish say the park hasn’t lived up to expectations.
"It is essentially a big chunk of open land with a stormwater retention pond in the middle of it," says Richard Hildner, a Whitefish city councilor.
"There's nothing really there," he says. "You wouldn't know it was a park if you were to look at it."
Hildner says the pond isn’t suitable for skating unless someone’s there to maintain it daily and that it’s a poor location for concerts with the trains going by and neighbors complaining about noise. He says parking is an issue and he’s never heard about making it accessible for people with physical disabilities.
He also says there’s a lot of interest to build in Whitefish at the moment. He says it’s worth looking into the ties between Zinke and the Halliburton investor but it didn’t ruffle his feathers.
"This is just one more piece of information with regards to role of this park," Hildner says. "Does it have anything to do with anything else? It probably doesn't."
Last December, city councilors required the developers of the lot next door to record an agreement with the Peace Park about the shared parking lot and access roads before starting construction. Lola Zinke, Ryan’s wife who took his place as the Peace Park’s president in 2017, signed a letter of agreeing to do so last December.
Members of the Peace Park’s board could not be reached for questions about the park’s future by listed phone numbers.
Secretary Zinke declined to be interviewed. His spokesperson said he hadn’t been with the Peace Park Foundation since 2017.
A road through the Peace Park was paved with recycled asphalt a couple weeks ago. For now, it remains a quiet, open space for dog walkers, sledders and the occasional deer.
The Interior Department’s Inspector General has not given a timeline for it’s investigation.