New Year, New Trails

While Flathead County has a moratorium on new pedestrian path construction, trail organizations plan expansions in 2021

By Micah Drew
The Great Northern Historical Trail near Kila on Sept. 14, 2017. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

In late spring of 2020, the Flathead County Commission adopted an addendum to the county’s trails plan that called for a moratorium on trail construction until the lack of maintenance funding could be remedied.

Flathead County currently has about $300,000 set aside to maintain approximately 34.2 miles of paved trails, including funding for the Gateway to Glacier Trail and Rails to Trails, and about 14 miles of unpaved trails, mostly in Herron Park.

Recently, the county parks and recreation board was given the results of a trail evaluation that rated each mile of trail in the county to determine the maintenance level required to extend its life expectancy.

“We were very pleased that the overall rating of our trails was seven out of 10,” Jed Fisher, Flathead County parks and recreation director, said. “Things are not as bad as we thought they could have been — that being said, it’s going to be very expensive.”

Maintenance is expected to use all the funds set aside by the county in the first year, and will then require roughly $280,000 per year to continue the level of maintenance. Until that budget is established, and further funds are pulled together, no new trails will be created by the county.

“There are several options we’re looking at with the board, including a special levy to put on the ballot for the valley to vote on,” Fisher said. “There might be other options, but we’d likely be robbing another fund and we certainly don’t want to do that.”

While the county-maintained trail system won’t see expansion in 2021, other projects will move forward this year.

In Kalispell, the Parkline Trail, part of the decade-long Kalispell Core and Rail Redevelopment Project, will break ground this summer.

The Parkline, which will replace the railroad line through downtown, has 90% of its design work completed, and bidding for the project is scheduled for February, with construction slated to begin in late spring or early summer.

The trail is often described as a “linear park through town,” and the City of Kalispell is looking to formally designate the trail as a park. The trail will connect Meridian Street with Woodland Park.

“We’re hoping at this time next year we’re on the trail, running, walking, biking,” Development Services Department Director Jarod Nygren told the Kalispell City Council in December.

On the west side of Kalispell, the Foys to Blacktail (FTB) trail network hasn’t expanded since 2018, when the Emmons Spring Trail was completed. Now, plans are in the works to add up to 15 miles of additional trails over the next few years.

The first expansion will be at Emmon’s Saddle, located nine miles up Patrick Creek Road and 19 miles along the trail from Chase Overlook, according to FTB program coordinator Gabriel Dillon.

There will be a new trailhead put in at Emmon’s Saddle that will include parking areas, hitching rails, restrooms and eventually a kiosk.

“It’s the only place where the trail comes close to a road until it reaches Blacktail,” Dillon said.

On the south side of Patrick Creek road, Dillon said the organization is looking to build four miles of ridgeline single track, with the ability to expand that to a seven-mile loop.

In addition, the FTB board of directors recently met with officials with the Flathead National Forest to discuss creating stacked loops on the north side of Emmon’s Saddle utilizing existing roadbeds. The current plan would make two single-track loops, each three to four miles long.

Dillon said the plan is to break ground on the Emmon’s Saddle project in early July, once grant funding is secured.

“We are confident we’ll get the funding, and a lot of that confidence is grounded in our supporters and members,” Dillon said. “When we’ve asked in the past, people have stepped up and donated what we’ve needed, so, if necessary, we’ll do a fundraising campaign.”

To the north, Whitefish Legacy Partners (WLP) is preparing for its own trail expansion. While there are a slew of projects in the works for WLP over the next few years, two have high priority to start construction in 2021.

According to WLP Program Director Margosia Jadkowksi, work will focus on the Smith Lake area, although they are awaiting final word from the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation on coordinating construction with logging operations in the area.

The first project will improve the lakeshore at Smith Lake, increasing user access to the waterfront. A steep user-trail will be improved to allow an easier descent to the lake and new access points will be created.

The other priority project will be building a new trail connecting Smith Lake to the Swift Creek trailhead. This will greatly expand the recreation corridor, creating a figure-eight style trail system. The new trail will be integrated with the disc golf course.

Jadkowski pointed out that there are only a few trail builders in the state that specialize in single-track work, which can make it difficult to get all construction plans scheduled.

“When there’s a big year like this with lots of trail expansion happening in the valley, it can be a mixed bag,” Jadkowski said. “But we’re all really excited about the progress that’s happening in the valley.

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