By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

An expanded Fort Missoula Regional Park will open to the public this weekend, capping a process that dates back more than 20 years and included moving several thousand cubic yards of earth, not to mention building pavilions from timber and stone.

Three years after Missoula County voters approved a $43 million bond to transform this formerly windswept field at Fort Missoula into a 156-acre centerpiece, the project's first phase will open to the public with a festive ribbon cutting planned for Saturday.

“It was first identified as a need in the community in 1995,” said Donna Gaukler, director of the city's parks department. “The city purchased 100 acres of land from the University of Montana in 1997 using funds from the open space bond.”

The park's trajectory toward completion and public use represents a long and winding process. In 2001, after the city purchased the land from UM, it began an extensive public process that marked the start of the park's eventual design.

Historic studies were completed several years later and involved a detailed review of the site's history, including that dating back to the Civilian Conservation Corps during President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal in 1933.

“In 2008, we completed our mitigation plan, which said we'd interpret the Civilian Conservation Corps' history of the park, which is a pretty cool thing,” Gaukler said. “The architecture is phenomenal with the logs and stone, because that's the way the CCCs built their facilities.”

Stan Cohen, a local historian and author, traced the area's European history back to 1877, the year the U.S. Army established Fort Missoula to protect settlers from a perceived threat posed by Native Americans.

The fort was in place when members of the CCC began arriving in 1933. That year, with the nation mired in the grips of a recession, they set out to lay the foundation of what would become America's national park system.

A bronzed statue standing at the park's main gate – itself built of stone not unlike the gates guarding Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks – recalls the ambitious, if not youthful, effort undertaken by members of the CCC.

Donna Gaukler (right), director of the city's Department of Parks and Recreation, describes the history and timeline leading up to the construction and opening of Fort Missoula Regional Park. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)
Donna Gaukler (right), director of the city's Department of Parks and Recreation, describes the history and timeline leading up to the construction and opening of Fort Missoula Regional Park. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

While the statue was unveiled last July, the first phase of the new park will follow suit when it opens this weekend. The park's second half, including seven softball fields, pickle ball courts, a dog park and a fitness station, is currently under construction and will open next summer.

“Out of the $38 million, we are definitely on budget,” Gaukler said. “We're also on schedule, despite one of the wettest falls, winters and springs in recent history.”

Of the 23 bids incorporated into Phase 1, all but one were issued to local contractors. Project managers chose Jackson Construction to serve as the construction manager. Gaukler said the approach helped smaller contractors bid on the large government project.

“Phase 2 is under construction, and of the 27 contractors, 25 are local,” said Gaukler. “That's created local jobs. Using the most conservative numbers, there's 347.7 full-time equivalent jobs.”

Just 30 minutes before the ribbon is cut at Fort Missoula Regional Park this Saturday, a separate ribbon cutting will take place at the South Reserve Street pedestrian bridge, which also caps a long-anticipated project.

The bridge will link cyclists and hikers from the Bitterroot Branch Trail in Missoula to the Bitterroot Trail heading down to Lolo. That trail opened last year and ties into the large Fort Missoula complex.

“One of the most exciting things is to think of the connection between this regional park and the regional trail, which was recently completed and connects Missoula to Hamilton,” said Missoula County parks manager Lisa Moise. “We're excited to think about residents in Lolo, who can now get on their bike and ride seven miles to enjoy everything this regional park has to offer.”

The ribbon cutting for the bridge takes place at 11:30 a.m. while the park's ribbon cutting will follow at noon.

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at