Major Improvements Coming to Fort Owen State Park

Major access, interpretation, and historic preservation improvements coming to Fort Owen State Park thanks to grant from Helmsley Charitable Trust 

The Montana State Parks Foundation in partnership with The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, and the Friends of Fort Owen are excited to announce funding to preserve and enhance the historical and educational resources at Fort Owen State Park for the enjoyment of all park visitors.

The $507,500 grant from the Helmsley Charitable Trust will be used to preserve and restore the original trading post structures including repairs to the adobe walls, the roofs, and foundation. Additionally, improving and expanding the interpretive, cultural, and historical displays held within the buildings and other locations within the park will take place in the next two years.

Accessing Fort Owen State Park, which is currently limited, will also be addressed by improving road access, building additional visitor parking, and providing new access for school and tour busses. These improvements will enhance the visitor experience and will allow the park to become accessible to people of all abilities.  

Fort Owen is a significant attraction in the Bitterroot Valley, and the improved visitor infrastructure and amenities will allow Montana State Parks and the local community to showcase the park as a destination for cultural tourists from around the world.

“Fort Owen holds significant historical value as an early American settlement,” said Walter Panzirer, a Trustee for the Helmsley Charitable Trust. “The Helmsley Charitable Trust is excited to fund the important work of restoring and preserving this historic site as well as improving education opportunities.” 


The Fort Owen trading post, now the core of Fort Owen State Park, is extremely significant in the early history of Montana and the inland Northwest, as it became an important touchstone first for fur traders, Native American Tribes, Jesuits and US government officials, then prospectors traveling to goldfields in the 1860s, then homesteaders and early ranchers in the 1870s and 1880s. Indeed, Fort Owen was the only significant European-style settlement that was present through all of these extraordinary periods of the mid to late 1800s in Montana’s history. 

“As Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks continue to look to enhance the Montana outdoor experience, these cultural treasures will remain critical,” said FWP director Martha Williams. “Fort Owen is part of our heritage and our story as Montanans. This funding and the generous support of the Helmsley Charitable Trust marks a significant step for the Bitterroot community and the key celebration of an important place in our history.”

Once this unique project is completed, Fort Owen State Park will be better equipped to handle its growing number of visitors and provide first-class educational and interpretive resources for the surrounding area. The park itself will double in size, historic structures and incredibly rare historical archaeology will be preserved and interpreted. Visitors will benefit from improved access and wayfinding, enhanced interpretive information, improved amenities, and additional events at the park. The nearby communities of Stevensville, Hamilton, and Missoula will see increased traffic to local businesses, additional tax revenues, and other ancillary benefits as more visitors come to experience and enjoy Fort Owen State Park. 

“It’s always been our mission to improve the visitor experience at our state parks.  We’re delighted to help bring together the funding from the Helmsley Charitable Trust, the passion of the local volunteers from the Friends of Fort Owen, and the technical expertise of the folks at Fish, Wildlife and Parks to transform Fort Owen State Park.  When we first looked at options for the park years ago, the situation looked bleak.  Now, with this robust group of partners and funding, the future of Fort Owen State Park is very bright,” said Coby Gierke, Executive Director of the Montana State Parks Foundation.  

Planning for improvements at Fort Owen State Park will begin by conducting an inventory of cultural resources that will inform the design of a new parking area and other park improvements. When this work and planning is complete, the draft development proposal will be available for public review.


About The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust
The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust aspires to improve lives by supporting exceptional efforts in the U.S. and around the world in health and select place-based initiatives. Since beginning active grantmaking in 2008, Helmsley has committed more than $2.8 billion for a wide range of charitable purposes. Helmsley’s Rural Healthcare Program funds innovative projects that use information technologies to connect rural patients to emergency medical care, bring the latest medical therapies to patients in remote areas, and provide state-of-the-art training for rural hospitals and EMS personnel. To date, this program has awarded more than $460 million to organizations and initiatives in the upper Midwest states of North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, Minnesota, Iowa, and Montana. For more information on Helmsley and its programs, visit www.helmsleytrust.org.