The Flathead County Planning Board passed a proposed trails plan as an addendum to the current county trail plan during its Feb. 12 meeting.
The unanimous decision by the seven-person board means the Flathead County Commission will now have final say in whether or not the proposed plan — which has drawn ire from trail advocates who say it is short-sighted and incomplete — is added onto the current trails plan that was passed in 2010.
Flathead County has been trying to revise its decade-old trail plan for years, but those efforts have been delayed or derailed at various points along the way. In 2017, the People, Athletics, Travel, Health and Safety Advisory Committee, also known as PATHS2, began working on a new plan to maintain, expand and connect the county’s existing trail system. The current system includes a number of paths, most notably the Gateway to Glacier Trail between Hungry Horse and West Glacier and the Great Northern Historical Trail between Kila and Somers, by way of Kalispell.
The committee presented its revised plan — which was the result of input from a number of state, local and federal stakeholders — to the Flathead County Weed, Park and Recreation Board. But in February 2019, the board tabled the plan despite overwhelming public support for it.
In the year since, the parks department has revised the plan and in late 2019 submitted it to the planning board for approval to replace the existing trail plan within the Flathead County Growth Policy. However, when the plan was released, trail advocates spoke out against it. Of particular note, the parks department’s version called for a moratorium on all new trail construction until a sustainable funding mechanism is put in place to maintain the existing trails.
During the Feb. 12 public hearing, a number of people spoke out against the new proposed trail plan and asked that the original one that was tabled, PATHS2, be revived.
“This plan is short-sighted,” said Erica Wirtala, public affairs director for the Northwest Montana Association of Realtors, who said trail developments help raise home values. “To have a plan that does not consider future connectivity is not enough. We need a bold new plan.”
Jim Watson, a Kalispell resident who’s long been involved with the Foy’s to Blacktail Trail, was critical of how the new plan came to be.
“This plan that has been put before you was written behind closed doors,” he said.
Despite the outcry against the plan, board member Greg Stevens said he liked that the new plan highlighted the lack of funding for maintenance and that he was inclined to send it on to the commission to gauge their support for finding trail funds.
“(Sending this forward) would enable the commission to prioritize maintenance, and once you figure out how to fund trail maintenance, then we can figure out how much money we have for new trails,” he said.
Planning Director Marc Mussman called the plan before the board “a start” and advised against replacing the 2010 plan with it.
After discussion, the board unanimously voted to send the plan forward to the commission as an addendum with the hope that the commissioners would advise the departments of whether or not they should move forward with the creation of a new trails plan.