Harmon’s Histories: Blue Mountain Recreation Area boasts explosive past
By Jim Harmon/Missoula Current
A Missoula Current reader recently asked, “Has there ever been a story about the Blue Mountain Trailhead south of Missoula? We hike there a lot and know that it was part of a ranch and then the Army? Used it for a range?”
Yes, there have been many stories about the Blue Mountain Recreation Area – but, I’m more than willing to add to the count, addressing your specific question about the Army connection.
For 50 years (1942-1992), Blue Mountain was used for artillery and small-arms practice by the National Guard and Army.
Thirty-caliber M1 rifles, machine guns and 3.5-inch bazookas were commonly test-fired by the 154th Field Artillery Group at Blue Mountain.
Whenever field training was planned, the brass at Fort Missoula would forewarn the public to stay clear of the area: “Hunters are warned not to use the road near the Blue Mountain Firing Range south of Missoula (November 10, 1959).”
According to the U-S Forest Service, the area “was originally part of the Fort Missoula Military Reservation. On November 5, 1952, President Harry S. Truman signed Executive Order 10403 that transferred 4,869 acres of the Military Reservation at Blue Mountain to the Lolo National Forest.”
Over the years, there were attempts to move the range, but finding alternatives (close to Missoula, where the troops and equipment were located) proved difficult, at best.
One proposal (to move the tank brigade’s firing range to the Bearmouth area) met strong opposition. At a public hearing in Drummond, residents told the military planners, “We don’t need the Guard down here. We’ll be polluted with noise and dust.”
Environmentalists voiced concern that tanks would ruin local streams, not to mention all the noise generated by heavy equipment and helicopters.
In more recent years, the Montana Guard tanks have participated in live-fire training in Idaho and, of course, were deployed to Iraq.
In 1970, the U.S. Forest Service issued its Blue Mountain Report, which concluded the area was, at that moment in time, “probably receiving the highest intensity of unregulated recreation use in Region One.”
It also noted, “military training activities and cattle grazing (as causing) additional impacts. Cross-county vehicle travel had caused extensive soil damage and indiscriminate shooting caused critical public safety hazards.”
“Abandoned car bodies littered the recreation area (81 car bodies were removed in 1964). Garbage dumps and litter from shooting, picnicking, and parties were common. The recreation area was a mess. In 1975, a number of civic groups joined the Forest Service in a major cleanup effort.”
Then, in 1986, the Forest Service completed its Blue Mountain Recreation Plan, in which it called for restoration of eroded roads and trails, and outlined a “travel management plan to stop indiscriminate off road vehicle travel.”
“In 1992, cattle grazing was terminated, an aggressive weed control program began, and the 18-hole folf course was established.” It also marked the year all military live-firing ended. In 2008, a thorough survey was conducted. No remaining unexploded ordnance was found.
“Today,” says the USFS, “the Blue Mountain Recreation area covers nearly 5,000 acres and boasts 41 miles of trails including some specifically set aside for motorcycles, ATVs and snowmobiles. The lower trailhead offers parking, restrooms and horse unloading facilities.”
It is, they conclude, “a restoration success story and a very different place than it was in the 1970s and '80s.”
Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at firstname.lastname@example.org. His best-selling book, “The Sneakin’est Man That Ever Was,” a collection of 46 vignettes of Western Montana history, is available at harmonshistories.com.