Bank erosion, user trails challenge city’s Parks Department

A new inventory conducted by the city’s Conservation Lands Program places Missoula’s open space holdings at roughly 4,100 acres, including an additional 280 acres acquired last year in the South Hills, which is scheduled to open to public use in the coming years. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

Erosion along the Clark Fork River through Missoula and unauthorized trails across sensitive landscapes remain two of the greatest challenges facing the Department of Parks and Recreation, though steps are being taken to manage both.

Doing so won’t come cheap and could take years to address, the city’s conservation lands manager said on Wednesday.

A new inventory conducted by the city’s Conservation Lands Program places Missoula’s open space holdings at roughly 4,100 acres, including an additional 200 acres acquired last year in the South Hills.

While the city prepares the new South Hills acquisition for public use, it’s also working to manage an estimated 20 miles of user-created trails that threaten sensitive landscapes, a figure that nearly doubles the amount of designated trails.

“When you look at non-system trails, these are the ones that are literally just getting walked in across the landscape,” said Morgan Valiant, the city’s conservation lands manager. “We don’t supply maintenance for it, and some of these go into areas we don’t want people to go because it’s critical songbird nesting habitat, or critical species of concern.”

A 2015 inventory conducted by the city documented 53 acres of designated trails, though Valiant was surprised to find an additional 20 miles of unauthorized trails cut by user traffic.

That has caused a backlog of deferred maintenance for the city’s conservation program which, at its current staffing and funding levels, can close and rehabilitate roughly 1.5 miles of trail each year.

In a presentation to the City Council’s Parks and Conservation Committee on Wednesday, Valiant identified several problem areas, including the Tower Street conservation area, where the number of user-made trails is nearly equal to the designated trails managed by the city.

The problem also exists on the saddle of Mount Jumbo, where user-made trails have cut into a thicket of hawthorns and a perennial creek.

“This is our most diverse area on the saddle, where you’ve got lazuli buntings going in and breeding in these thickets, and water almost year-round so animals come in,” Valiant said. “We’ve got trails running all through them. It’s an area we’re actively trying to maintain, and it’s a challenge for us.”

Valiant said the problem was inherited by the city’s conservation program. He’s been on the job for nine years now, though most of the city’s open space lands were acquired two or more decades ago, and many of the trails likely already existed.

As a result, he said, the program is attempting catch up on deferred maintenance and find solutions to prevent continued use.

“We don’t have directional signage at any of our trailheads,” Valiant said. “Some of that stuff is in the works, but we’re playing catch-up with a lot of this stuff. We’ve got to educate the public on where they need to be.”

As seen from Mount Sentinel, Missoula sits under a winter day. The city’s growing population will continue to place more pressure on its conservation lands. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Similar issues exist along the Clark Fork River, and the issue is growing worse. Five years ago, Valiant said, his department counted 15 river access points created by users cutting down to the water.

That number now stands at 34.

“There’s a ton of soil that’s getting deposited in the river because there’s no vegetation to hold it back,” Valiant said. “The majority of this erosion isn’t natural. If you put it all together, it’s about 400 feet of riverbank, so it’s longer than a football field. If that was all in one big area versus spread out over 34 spots, it would be more than just me in here saying we need to fix this river.”

Valiant said the bank destabilization and loss of riparian vegetation has been a long-standing issue. The erosion has intensified and now threatens to undercut sections of the commuter trail that runs along the southern bank.

Plans to create hardened access points and replant lost vegetation are in the works, though Valiant said the projects will cost between $800,000 and $1 million.

“Solving this problem is not just about closing these and rehabilitating them – that has not worked in the past,” Valiant said. “This is a big project, but I think it’s worthwhile and we’ve got a ton of support for it.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com