Making Room for Montana’s Pedestrians

By Beacon Staff

In the land of the pickup truck and 700-mile interstate, pedestrian paths and bike trails are carving out a home for themselves.

Last October, the Flathead County Commission passed a sweeping trails plan with the goal of creating a continuous network of pathways connecting the county’s population hubs to each other and to trails in Glacier National Park and the Flathead National Forest.

The plan calls for using “a variety of strategies to acquire sufficient funding to construct and maintain the proposed trail system within the next 20 years.”

Similar to what’s been happening in Whitefish for years, the plans demonstrates that the county is serious about providing opportunities for extensive non-motorized travel, including everything from bike lanes to backcountry trails to paved multi-use pathways.

The Rails to Trails of Northwest Montana paved pathway runs from Kila to Somers, cutting through Kalispell where city officials have also stressed the importance of pedestrian and bike paths.

“The (trail planning advisory) committee envisions a safe and convenient network of non-motorized trails connecting Flathead County communities, schools, parks and public lands for the benefit of our families, our economy and our environment,” the county plan states.

In the late 1990s, the city of Whitefish implemented a master plan detailing a network of pedestrian and bike paths. To date, there are roughly seven miles of paved paths within city limits that are compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Also, the Whitefish Trail west of town is underway, with dozens of miles of rural trails planned.

To encourage residents to ride bicycles as an alternative form of transportation, and to raise awareness for the “Fish Trails” urban path network, Whitefish is holding its second annual BikeFish event on June 5-12.

BikeFish features a “bike to work/school” day, tours of both the Fish Trails and rural Whitefish Trail, a bike-in movie at the Stumptown Ice Den, a kids’ bike rodeo, a raffle, bike races and mountain bike tours of the Pig Farm, among other events. A 5-kilometer run at City Beach kicks off the week.

For a schedule of events, visit www.bikefish.org.

Don Spivey, a Whitefish resident who has been instrumental in promoting the Fish Trails, said pedestrian and bike paths “play multiple functions,” serving as both a recreational amenity and a viable avenue for day-to-day transportation.

“This time of year, people are riding to work and that has grown with the cost of gasoline,” Spivey said. “It’s a health factor, not just recreation.”

The county trails plan also discusses the health benefits and safety aspects of non-motorized travel, with one goal of the network to “increase the percentage of trips made by bicycling and walking in the county, reduce the number of traffic injuries, and increase the number of non-motorized trail users.”

Whitefish Parks and Recreation Director Karl Cozad said his department began realizing how popular the paths are – for both recreation and daily transportation – a few years ago after fielding numerous calls because the winter’s first snow had made the path along Wisconsin Avenue impossible to navigate.

“We realized how many people used it to get to work,” he said. “That was encouraging and enlightening. Now we have it high on our priority list to take care of it as the snow falls.”

Paved urban trails, however, aren’t cheap and are built as funds become available. In Whitefish, the Fish Trails are a perpetual work in progress, with new sections constantly on the radar.

“What drives it more than anything else is availability of funds,” Cozad said. “We chip away at it.”

One certainty for Cozad is that every section of trail built will be used. Cozad said it “amazes” him how popular the paths are.

“It’s a fantastic community that values quality of life,” Cozad said. “I’ve been in this business for 40 years now and I’ve never seen anything like it.”

For more information on BikeFish, visit www.bikefish.org or call the Whitefish Convention and Visitor Bureau at (406) 862-3390.

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