Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) A stretch of an old railroad bed abandoned long ago could become the newest segment of the Great American Trail once the city and airport flesh out a plan.

Brian Ellestad, director of the Missoula Montana Airport, said the rail bed was once used by the Milwaukee Railroad. It stretches roughly 1.5 miles across airport property and includes around 27 acres. It was included in a land purchase completed by the airport years ago.

“It's a full rail bed and at the end of the day, it seems like a natural fit for the city,” Ellestad said. “We've been working with them for a couple of years, slowly making progress.”

The boxes identify gaps in the Great American Trail between Butte and Thompson Falls.
The boxes identify gaps in the Great American Trail between Butte and Thompson Falls.

The Milwaukee Road – also known as the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul railroad – stretches more than 3,700 miles from coast to coast. In Montana, portions of the corridor have already been converted as part of the Great American Rails to Trails project.

But the entire project is less than 60% complete and still includes sizable gaps, included in those is six western Montana counties (Butte-Silver Bow, Deer Lodge, Powell, Granite, Missoula and Mineral).

Early last year, the Missoula City Council approved an agreement to work with the other counties in pursuing funds to plan for the trail's completion. As it stands, Ellestad said the city may use funding from the Open Space Bond to secure the airport's portion of the rail corridor.

“It's in the city's lap, more so, and it seems like a good use funds,” said Ellestad. “It's not something we can readily use, so it seems like the right fit for the property.”

The airport receives funding from the Federal Aviation Administration and, as a result, can only divest of property at fair market value. Ellestad said an appraisal on the railroad property placed its value at $100,000.

The airport is also working with the city on plans to restore portions of Grant Creek as part of the larger Mullan area master plan. A segment of the restoration project abuts airport property. Ellestad said the airport hasn't seen a final design and would need to approve its portion of the project.

“Our property is part of that phase,” he said. “We've talked to the Clark Fork Coalition and aviation biologists. They understand our desire that it doesn't attract wildlife or have big trees in there to perch.”

Portions of the restoration project sit within the airport's approach zone.