The Agenda with the Missoula County Commissioners

Life on the Lake: Supporting Local Efforts in Seeley

July 12, 2023 Missoula County Commissioners Season 3 Episode 12
Life on the Lake: Supporting Local Efforts in Seeley
The Agenda with the Missoula County Commissioners
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The Agenda with the Missoula County Commissioners
Life on the Lake: Supporting Local Efforts in Seeley
Jul 12, 2023 Season 3 Episode 12
Missoula County Commissioners

Seeley Lake is an unincorporated town with a population of about 1,600 in the northern part of Missoula County. Located between the Mission and Swan mountain ranges and dotted with narrow, glacial lakes, the Seeley area is synonymous with recreation and beautiful landscapes.

Thousands of people visit Seeley Lake each summer, but what’s it like to be a year-round resident, or own a business there? This week, the commissioners sat down with Claire Muller, director of the Seeley Lake Community Foundation, to talk about the unique challenges and misconceptions about this rural community.

Related links:

Thank you to Missoula's Community Media Resource for podcast recording support!

Show Notes Transcript

Seeley Lake is an unincorporated town with a population of about 1,600 in the northern part of Missoula County. Located between the Mission and Swan mountain ranges and dotted with narrow, glacial lakes, the Seeley area is synonymous with recreation and beautiful landscapes.

Thousands of people visit Seeley Lake each summer, but what’s it like to be a year-round resident, or own a business there? This week, the commissioners sat down with Claire Muller, director of the Seeley Lake Community Foundation, to talk about the unique challenges and misconceptions about this rural community.

Related links:

Thank you to Missoula's Community Media Resource for podcast recording support!

Juanita Vero: [00:00:10] Welcome back to Tip of the Spear with your Missoula County commissioners. I'm Juanita Vero and I'm joined by my fellow commissioners, Dave Strohmaier and Josh Slotnick. And today we have Claire Muller with us, the executive director of the Seeley Lake Community Foundation. So welcome, Claire.


Claire Muller: [00:00:25] Thank you. 


Juanita Vero: [00:00:25] Tell us about what the foundation is and how it works with us, County Government, or tell us a little bit about yourself too.


Dave Strohmaier: [00:00:33] Yeah, how did you end up in Seeley Lake?


Claire Muller: [00:00:34] I lived in Missoula for the better part of a decade. I did a lot of work in the woods. I moved down to Salmon, Idaho for a bit and worked as a wilderness ranger in the franc and moved up to Seeley for a different position with a different nonprofit for Blackfoot Challenge for a season. Did a big career shift found this opportunity five years last month is my anniversary with the Seeley Lake Community Foundation.


Josh Slotnick: [00:00:59] Congrats.


Claire Muller: [00:00:59] Thank you. Time flies.


Juanita Vero: [00:01:01] Wow. I can't believe it's been five years. Wow.


Claire Muller: [00:01:03] I have a certificate in nonprofit administration from the University of Montana and studied international development, basically looking at how rural, geographically isolated communities that struggle with all the factors that influence how that comes to be. So Seeley is a beautiful place. That is a great opportunity to put some pieces of my background together and do some cool work to benefit Montana.


Dave Strohmaier: [00:01:28] What is some of that cool work?


Claire Muller: [00:01:30] So the Seeley Lake Community Foundation is a 500 and 1C3 nonprofit set up to gather and grow resources for the Seeley Lake community. It was founded in 2000, and since then it's almost $1.5 million that we've been able to get out into the community for projects benefiting Seeley Lake. The mission statement of the Seeley Lake Community Foundation is to engage philanthropy, provide leadership and improve the quality of life and economic vitality of the Seeley Lake area.


Josh Slotnick: [00:01:59] So after being in Seeley many times interacting with all kinds of people who have really different needs and hopes, expectations, I've found one constant theme and it is that everyone loves the community foundation.


Claire Muller: [00:02:13] I love that theme, everybody. So glad you talked to so many people.


Josh Slotnick: [00:02:18] I have. I've talked...


Dave Strohmaier: [00:02:18] It was a sample of one. Oh, no.


Josh Slotnick: [00:02:21] Everybody loves the community Foundation. How did you pull that off in a place that appears from the outside that can be a bit divided. And I'm not talking about politics. I'm talking really about people who have chosen to live in Seeley. They've moved there in retirement. They bought their second home there. They made a choice, even though their first home primary home that they want to live in Seeley. And then there's this other group of folks who grew up there, there. And it seems like these are two pretty distinct groups, yet everybody loves the community Foundation. So what have you done you think that has created this kind of unifying sense of the community foundation being on everybody's team?


Claire Muller: [00:02:56] Thanks for saying that, Josh. I hope that's the case and I think that we're getting there and I think that is the goal. It's easy to hear the good and sometimes people can be quieter if they're not as big of a fan or something. So it's always on my mind of how do you serve the community and how do you look to different groups and serve different sectors? I think that Seeley Lake is number one, such a special place and it grabs so many people's hearts that it's easy in that realm. I don't think there is one community. I think that's a really common misconception. I think there's pockets of community in Seeley Lake. There are pockets of community that I think the community foundation really resonates with, and there's some pockets that we haven't really interacted with or touched too much yet. But I think there's so much potential for an organization like a community foundation in a small, rural, unincorporated place like Seeley Lake.


Dave Strohmaier: [00:03:58] So the projects that you've worked on in the past, walk us through from start to finish, from the inception of an idea to how something gets implemented on the ground and how the community Foundation has played a role in that, versus someone taking a different path to try to get the same project accomplished.


Claire Muller: [00:04:16] Sure. And maybe first, Dave, I'll start with some of what we have been focusing on, some of our big projects. So a large portion of what the community Foundation is set up to do is help local nonprofits and help support local groups in making projects happen. So we provide community grants each year. We also run the Change Your Pace challenge, which is similar to Missoula gives. It's a community wide fundraiser. We just wrapped that up about a week ago and we raised $95,000 for 16 local nonprofits, which is pretty neat.


Juanita Vero: [00:04:51] It's kind of like the range of those nonprofits to give folks an idea of what kind of nonprofits are.


Claire Muller: [00:04:55] It is a range, Juanita, it's a range. There's arts groups, there's Missoula, Aging Services participates. We have several natural resource organizations, which makes sense in such a beautiful rural area. One of the. Newest groups that participated was a brand new nonprofit that formed the parent teacher club at Seeley Lake Elementary School. So that's a group that's trying to fundraise for projects specifically benefiting Seeley Lake Elementary, which is its own school district, not part of Missoula County public schools like the high school is, the majority are in Seeley Lake. We have a few museums, including Upper Swan Valley Historical Society in the Swan, in Condon and Blackfoot Challenge participates in Ovando. We try and make it as easy as possible also for the groups to participate. We've got a check presentation ceremony on Wednesday, but it's the seventh or eighth year of that program since 2016. Change Your Pace has raised over $600,000 for the greater Seeley Lake community, which is pretty neat.


Josh Slotnick: [00:05:55] So when you look out at the greater community of Seeley these pockets put together, what are some of the challenges you see?


Claire Muller: [00:06:00] Seeley Lake is an aging community. It is statistically significantly older than the rest of Missoula County and so aging in place is on a lot of people's minds I think, and it's a big retirement community also. So that is a unique challenge facing Seeley Lake not unique, but big is housing that's constantly that's top of mind for a lot of people and conversations these days. I think a unique challenge for Seeley Lake is the sewer.


Josh Slotnick: [00:06:31] Can you describe that for folks who may be listening but aren't aware of what's happened?


Claire Muller: [00:06:35] Seeley Lake has a sewer district, and it's a big, complex issue and it's very emotional. And it's been just dragging on for 20 years. Also, there's only so much septic. Most everyone is on septic and Seeley Lake. There is no sewer system. So it's hard to develop any new pieces of property, in part because of the septic. It's hard to do renovations because there is no... Because of how the septic systems have the potential to influence groundwater. So there's a lot of water quality concerns is at the base of...


Josh Slotnick: [00:07:16] So there can't just be more and more septics. There's kind of a limit.


Claire Muller: [00:07:19] There's a limit. And I don't actually know as much about the details of the sewer debacle as I probably should, but I believe Missoula County might be the or the Health Department is.


Josh Slotnick: [00:07:32] So just to be super clear, our health department would be charged with making sure that state law around water quality is enforced. Our health department isn't creating that law or creating those regulations. So this isn't an artifact of Missoula County. This is a feature of Missoula County playing a role that the state has said you health department must play this role.


Dave Strohmaier: [00:07:53] So something that's pretty interesting with the whole sewer issue and I think it hits on something Josh brought up earlier in terms of if you just look at the demographics of a place like Seeley Lake, you have folks who have spent their whole entire lives in this place and remained there. You have other folks who at some point in their lives made the conscious choice to relocate and live in Seeley Lake maybe because they like the feel of the community the way it was at one particular moment in time that's crystallized in their memory. And then maybe you've got another category of folks who might span both of those in that you've got individuals who might have grown up there, who might have moved there, who have a vision for Seeley Lake maybe somewhat different than what it is right now. So if you want to expand a business, if you want to build more housing, many of the things we've mentioned, it's going to require infrastructure to do so. And maybe part of the pushback with the whole sewer issue over the past number of years has been the concern that if you build this infrastructure, it's going to move the community in a direction that irrevocably is going in the wrong direction. From my vision of this place, and maybe this is in a roundabout way, what I'm trying to get at is what role is there, whether it's the community foundation and other entity to really put a fine point on the collective vision that we have for this place and then build the infrastructure necessary to support that. And in some cases those might just be incongruous. But is there an opportunity to to come around a collective vision rather than starting with the infrastructure discussion first, that doesn't necessarily get you to all be sitting around the table?


Claire Muller: [00:09:39] Yeah, beautifully put. And I think you hit the nail on the head, Dave. That would be ideal to go through a planning process. I talked to some people who are interested in seeing something like that happen. I think that that would be so much work and investment in order to make happen.


Juanita Vero: [00:09:56] You guys have already done a planning process in 2007, though.


Claire Muller: [00:09:59] Yes, exactly. And that a lot of community members put a lot of time. I think it was approved in 2011. So a lot of work that. Was done probably in those years. Just so.


Dave Strohmaier: [00:10:11] So it's been over a decade, probably since the planning has gone on at that level in Seeley Lake.


Josh Slotnick: [00:10:16] Do you feel like that plan came to reality, that the vision outlined is now lived?


Claire Muller: [00:10:21] I think it's a great document. I've read it. I think my understanding is that it doesn't have any teeth to it, even though it was approved.


Josh Slotnick: [00:10:30] Yeah. No, no. Just like I'm not looking for enforcement. But did the vision become real? And I don't think that's a... If it didn't that's not a criticism of the vision. It's just life unfolded. It doesn't have teeth. The expectations aren't there. It's just an expression in one moment of what people would like to see for their community. Did some of those things come to reality?


Claire Muller: [00:10:52] Some things have.


Josh Slotnick: [00:10:55] Great.


Claire Muller: [00:10:55] Yeah, I think some things have. And I think that the sewer issue is so complex and when people try and just make a broad stroke and say like, Oh, if only we had a sewer, everything would be fixed. I think there's danger in oversimplifying in that sort of realm because that issue in particular is so complex because, for example, there's so much state land along the lake or Forest Service land or just like where the designations are super tricky. So I think the vision for the community with that document was really great. I think there's probably there's some new constraints since that document has been done, but also a lot of similar trajectories, a lot of the same challenges and opportunities.


Juanita Vero: [00:11:41] We touched on this earlier, but how does the foundation work with county government.


Claire Muller: [00:11:46] Where our own nonprofit and so we do receive some grant funding. We just got our third year of I Ride grant funding, thank you so much to the county through the Community Assistance Fund. We rent out space in the foundation building and there have been several county events there, several Covid vaccine clinics.


Dave Strohmaier: [00:12:06] I'm just trying to draw out the distinction between some of the work that the foundation does that is kind of serving as a point of contact for bringing in dollars and then pushing them out to specific nonprofits. But also, you mentioned I Ride where here's a program that's administered, if I'm understanding this correctly, administered by the Seeley Lake Foundation and receiving funding from, say, Missoula County. What sort of projects would fall in each category? You supporting a nonprofit, doing some bit of work versus you as the foundation taking it on and seeking funding for your own program?


Claire Muller: [00:12:44] We would love to help support other groups, do a lot of work in Seeley Lake and working as a convener and facilitator would be a fantastic role. But the reality is, in a small, unincorporated town where almost everybody is a volunteer, taking more of a leadership role sometimes is the case, and glass recycling is another great example of a project that we took on a little bit opportunistically. And we also run the Sunday market in the summer also very successfully. Yeah. Thank you. We just celebrated 15 years for the market and had a little anniversary a week or two ago.


[00:13:19] Yeah, I wish I could have gone. So if a person was to visit Seeley today, a nice day in July, you'd see a lot of guests and all of us and anybody listening have been to places across the country or across Montana where tourism is a real engine for the economy. It also has an effect on the culture. We've been to places that just feel like tourist places, not places unto themselves. It feels like Seeley has been able to use its resource as a place of natural beauty to create a tourist economy and has not yet given entirely given up its culture and become a tourist destination solely. It's still a place unto itself. Do you think that's kind of accident, or did you all do some intentional things to maintain a certain sort of culture, even in the face of quite seriously an onslaught of tourism?


Claire Muller: [00:14:05] Yeah, beautiful question. I don't think it's necessarily intentional. [00:14:09] I do think that there is a lot of independence and pride in Seeley Lake. What's beautiful is this get a chance in my role to talk to people from so many different walks of life with ties to Seeley Lake and to hear that there are there's people who have had cabins there since the 60s. There's people who grew up in Seeley. There's people who moved there two years ago and absolutely love it. It's all across that. And I think that part of the charm is that there is a nod to the past. [00:14:43] I don't think that there's a master plan to make that happen. Okay. I don't feel like I am able to be too big picture and visionary. I feel like I just have I'm boots on the ground and I'm just in the trenches. So it's really hard for me to think of big strategic questions like that, which are really important. I know that Glacier County, Montana, has been working on shifting to destination stewardship, where they recognize. Is that just marketing? Montana is it's gone too far. And so now they're trying to look at how do you make it sustainable for people who do live here. I think that's a great vision. I don't know how to make conversations happening.


Juanita Vero: [00:15:21] Josh was talking about visitors, but misconceptions? Rumors. Yeah. Give us some insight. 


[00:15:26] As you're in the trenches. What are you hearing from folks maybe who live outside the community that might not be quite on point?


Juanita Vero: [00:15:34] Do some myth busting for us.


Claire Muller: [00:15:35] Myth busting for Seeley Lake? [00:15:38] I think a common myth is that it's one cohesive whole and there's one cohesive community. And I that's just not the case. There's a common narrative that in a little rural town, everybody knows everybody and it's just not true. I think the census says there's 1600 people, but probably in the summer that swells to 4000. There's pockets of community I'm starting to think of maybe even like the different lakes as different pockets of community. There's a couple of different HOAs. The schools are their own little pockets of community. The nonprofits in town, which are their own little pockets. There's the Drift Riders and the snowmobiling groups, the artisan groups. So I think that's a common misconception. [00:16:16] One thing I would love to say is in rural communities, volunteerism makes a huge difference. Our town runs on volunteers. I'm one of the few paid staff in the Valley, but I also think that that is a disservice to rural communities because then the expectation becomes, well, everybody will just volunteer because it's a small town. And so I do think that for resource allocation, it is really interesting to think about like, well, how do we create more paid positions in town so that people can afford to work and live in small towns that they love? I think that's hard to do, but I think that's something that's worth looking at. I've been following the work of Reimagining Rural. There's a gentleman, Ben Winchester, who's a rural sociologist who has some interesting findings about rural communities and kind of flips your expectations on its head. For example, it's commonly portrayed as there's this rural brain drain, and he talks about that just with demographic trends. It's common for people who graduate from high school to migrate to bigger towns and cities for college. And so it's common to see bigger populations of people in their 20s in bigger areas. But if you really dig into the data, there's actually a lot of people moving back in their 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s.


Juanita Vero: [00:17:36] Bring their young families back to the community who love a place to raise kids.


Claire Muller: [00:17:42] Precisely. Or to retire there. And so it's really interesting how many incredibly smart people have ties to Seeley Lake and really accomplished people. And I think that's an interesting piece also.


Juanita Vero: [00:17:53] It's an incredible asset.


Claire Muller: [00:17:54] Yeah, incredible asset.


Dave Strohmaier: [00:17:55] Yeah. We've just talked a little bit about some misconceptions that folks might have about the Seeley Lake community, maybe wrong negative connotations about rural America that are just off base, but on the flip side of that, what what are maybe by virtue of the fact of Seeley being a smaller community with a lot of folks who have maybe a shared vision, what are some of the unique opportunities that you see to make Seeley Lake an even more vibrant, healthy place than it is today?


Claire Muller: [00:18:30] Yeah, beautiful. I don't consider myself a visionary. I am much more of an operational implementer. I hear a lot of ideas. There's a lot of people with a lot of ideas and Seeley Lake, which is beautiful, and I think the doers are really powerful. There's the potential to make so much happen, and when you are in a small town, you can just decide to do something. The market was started by a woman who just said, I'm just going to start a market and she just worked really hard and made it happen. That's so beautiful. This glass recycling program that I touched upon, it started out as a grant that we gave to Recycling Works, a Missoula nonprofit a few years ago to do a pilot project for a year that became so popular and when it was ending, a donor approached us and said, What if we continue all the back end costs of this so that this program can continue and we can continue to raise money for local schools? And so that honestly, that's why I'm sharing this story, Dave, is because that was a little bit opportunistic of how things kind of came together easily. And that I think, goes back to your earlier question of how does a community foundation decide when to get involved. [00:19:40] Some of the issues that face Seeley Lake are so big and intractable that, like, the most important thing that needs to happen are those issues. [00:19:49]


Claire Muller: [00:19:49]  [00:19:49]And it's so hard to wrap your arms around that. Sometimes taking a baby step is the easier way to go, just to gain momentum, bring people in and to make them feel like they're part of something. And so I think that to answer your question, more small steps are a really great way to go about it. [00:20:07] Because what I've also seen is that people get really ambitious and especially people who move to Seeley Lake and are just blown away and they're just like, Oh my gosh, this is incredible. I want to get involved. I want to just go, go, go. We got to do all these things and then they burn out really quickly. So the marathon is where my mind is at. Like, is glass recycling the most pressing issue that faces Seeley Lake? No, but people love it. In the last year and a half, we've collected 12,000 pounds of glass and raised $5,500 for local schools. Honestly, it's almost easy. That's an easy program for us to run. So there's really big hairy issues out there and it would be so great to tackle those. But relationships are key and building trust takes time and it's so easy for that to disappear.


Dave Strohmaier: [00:20:53] Excellent points.


Juanita Vero: [00:20:55] Well, before we close. Share with us a good book or a nugget of wisdom or podcast, mantra.


Claire Muller: [00:21:04] I love the Freakonomics podcast and I love Malcolm Gladwell's books. Yeah, I read Talking to Strangers recently is pretty good.


Juanita Vero: [00:21:13] I'll have to check that out.


Claire Muller: [00:21:14] It was good. It was really interesting. It's about how interacting with people of different cultures or places is rife for conflict.


Dave Strohmaier: [00:21:23] Well, thanks so much, Clare. And I guess a bonus question. So if folks are listening and intrigued about what the Community Foundation is up to and maybe want to get involved, what's your advice to them?


Claire Muller: [00:21:37] Volunteering is a beautiful way to get involved. In particular, we always need I Ride drivers. We just had our third record breaking month in a row for ridership, and today, this morning we had our MDT triennial review that we got flying colors on. So that's a really cool program. Donations are always a fantastic way to make a difference. I didn't also mention the Seeley Lake Community Foundation has an endowment and I think that that is a really powerful way for Montana to invest in itself and create permanent funds for community projects and would love for people to swing by the foundation building in downtown Seeley Lake and come take a tour and learn more and look at how to get involved around town.


Dave Strohmaier: [00:22:22] Charge up your electric vehicle.


Claire Muller: [00:22:23] Charge up your electric vehicle. Yeah. Last summer we have Seeley Lake's first electric vehicle charging station. We partnered with Missoula Electric Cooperative. They got a grant and wanted to keep Seeley a prime tourism corridor, so they asked to host it at our facility.


Juanita Vero: [00:22:40] Excellent. Thank you.


Dave Strohmaier: [00:22:41] So thanks so much, Claire. It's been delightful.


Claire Muller: [00:22:43] Thank you so much. Really appreciate your time.


Dave Strohmaier: [00:22:44] You bet.


Josh Slotnick: [00:22:46] Thanks for listening to the Tip of the Spear podcast. If you enjoy these conversations, it would mean a lot if you would rate and review the show on whichever podcast app you like. And if you know a friend who would like to keep up with what's happening in local government, be sure to recommend this podcast to them. The Tip of the Spear podcast is made possible with support from better known as Missoula Community Access Television and our staff in the Missoula County Communications Division. If you have a question or topic you'd like us to address on a future episode, email it to And to find other ways to stay up to date with what's happening at Missoula County, go to And thanks for listening.