As Fires Smolder, Trail Work Begins on National Forests

USFS officials say reopening East Side Trail on Spotted Bear Ranger District a top priority

By Justin Franz
A firefighter does trail work in the Spotted Bear Ranger District. Photo courtesy of InciWeb

Though it’s October, U.S. Forest Service officials across Montana are still dealing with the impacts of this year’s fire season. And in some cases, the flames are still smoldering.

On the Flathead National Forest’s Spotted Bear Ranger District, the biggest priority is trying to reopen a critical route, the Eastside Trail No. 80, which connects to the Bob Marshall Wilderness. However, District Ranger Deb Mucklow said in some cases Forest Service employees are still encountering fire.

Although the danger from most fires in the region has subsided, some are still producing plenty of smoke. That was the case last weekend when the Sheep Fire near Essex released a noticeable smoke cloud on Glacier National Park’s southern boundary. Officials say the fire is primarily burning in remote country away from Essex. On the Kootenai National Forest, officials were keeping an eye on two fires near Libby that flared up earlier this month. Cooler weather has since calmed fears that those fires will jump any containment lines.

Mucklow said that 125 miles of trail were damaged on the Spotted Bear Ranger District, mostly by the massive Bear Creek Fire that scorched more than 70,000 acres. About 13 miles of the Eastside Trail were damaged in the blaze and the district ranger said reopening that is the top priority. If they can’t repair the trail before the snow falls, there could be big problems next spring. The trail is the main route to the Big Prairie Ranger Station and is frequently used by local outfitters.

“The Eastside Trail is a primary access route and it sees a lot of traffic. It’s a major route through the area,” she said. “If we don’t get the trail reopened and people start going cross-country next year that could have major impacts (on the resource).”

Much of the work on the trail includes installing new water bars, which divert water off the trail, and crib walls, which keep the trail in place. Mucklow said the Forest Service has so far only received funds to repair the Eastside Trail so other trail work may have to wait until spring.

“It’s labor-intensive work since it’s in the wilderness and has to be done by hand; we can’t use chainsaws,” she said.

On the Kootenai National Forest, trail work has been slow to start because many crews are still mopping up wildfires. Mary Laws, recreation program ranger for the forest, said firefighters have done some “cut and run work” but that more repairs are needed. She said that some local forest user groups, including the Friends of the Scotchman Peaks Wilderness, Back Country Horseman of Montana and the Kootenai Mountain Riders, have all expressed interest in helping restore some trails.

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.