Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) After several months of deliberation, research and on-the-ground sleuthing, Missoula County put to rest a debate over what some claimed should be public access to the Bitterroot River via a “lost” wagon road established as far back as the 1860s.

A group of residents in Lower Miller Creek signed a petition seeking access to the river by altering the old wagon road, which leads to several parcels of land now held by Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks at water's edge.

At the same time, another group of residents – including the owner of the property the old road allegedly crossed – signed a petition asking the county to abandon the road altogether.

“In the case of all things being equal, public sentiment and preference would be strong reasons to contemplate alternation, especially if there was no controversy involved. But that is not the case before us today. All things are not equal,” said Commissioner Dave Strohmaier.

Opening the lost road for public access would require a path across private land, a working cattle ranch and two conservation easements established by Five Valleys Land Trust.

Providing motorized access to the river's edge would also have detrimental effects on riparian habitat, the county believes. The county contends that FWP never intended to see motorized access to the site. The site is accessible to the public by fording the river from the opposite bank.

“The reality is, when we're talking about access, it wasn't the intention of FWP to have that access be over land. It was to have a unique and special recreational experience on that section of river,” said Commissioner Juanita Vero.

The Bitterroot River runs alongside private land as it enters Missoula. The Oxbow Cattle Co. owns some of the land and has carved out a niche as Missoula grows to the south.
The Bitterroot River runs alongside private land as it enters Missoula. The Oxbow Cattle Co. owns some of the land and has carved out a niche as Missoula grows to the south.

According to the county, the historic wagon trail has been known as the Bitterroot Trail, the Missoula-Skalkaho Road, and the Missoula to Stevensville Road. It was petitioned in 1867 and the survey was allegedly recorded by the county in 1868.

But a county survey also notes that the road lies in an area subject to flooding, and that the road saw little if any public use after 1874. The location of the road “can only be determined from an interpretation of the terrain, oral testimony, written evidence, and historical use of the area,” the county has said.

Those looking to restore the road for public access to the river cited law which they believe requires the county to provide “substantially the same” access to the river, either on the old road or at another point.

But on that front, Strohmaier said it was important to put “substantially the same” into context.

“The original right-of-way and road was to provide access not to a specific parcel of land along the river, such as the FWP parcels. It was a convenient place to cross the river (in the 1800s) en route to Skalkaho,” Strohmaier said. “One might argue that substantially the same access to Skalkaho and the public lands therein exists today in Highway 93.”

While the county could have denied the petition to open the road to public use while maintaining it in the records as future right-of-way, they opted instead to abandon the road altogether, saying there was no pressing need to cross or access the river at that location.

“I see no likely scenario in the future where we'd ever need a river crossing at this location to access Lolo or Highway 93,” Strohmaier said. “I'm perfectly comfortable abandoning this section of Bitterroot Road.”