A new plan to modify and manage the trails along the Mount Jumbo Saddle might help habitat but some legacy users aren’t happy, saying they were left out of the discussion.

The Missoula Parks and Recreation Board this week passed the Mount Jumbo Saddle Management Unit Trails Plan with four members in favor and one – John O’Connor - abstaining. The plan deals with the 22-acre Saddle Management Unit, which is one of the smaller units within the seven-unit 1,800-acre Mount Jumbo property, but it’s the most highly used.

Recently, all that use has resulted in a lot more problems, so Parks and Recreation rated that unit as a high priority for a trails plan, said Missoula Ecosystems Services Superintendent Morgan Valliant.

“We recognize that while this is only 22 acres and a few miles of trail, it is a high-use trailhead, and one thing that we’ve seen over the pandemic is vast increases in the amount of use at Lincoln Hills trailhead,” Valliant said. “We’re getting user counts and car counts that were above those of the Waterworks trailhead. At Waterworks, we got about 100,000 to 120,000 visits a year. So significant increases in people, significant increases in user conflict and also resource damage.”

The challenge is that Mount Jumbo was added to Missoula’s public land system in 1997, before any management plans were developed, Valliant said. So now, Missoula needs to come in after the fact and overlay a plan on an area where the public has already had its way.

The lack of management has resulted in several user-created trails, nonexistent signage and damage to habitat, such as ephemeral seeps. Plus the existing trails were old and poorly designed so some are fairly steep with poor visibility, Vallaint said.

Valliant and his team have met with user groups for about two years of public scoping, and the plan has evolved over the past six months, with the draft plan being published in January. Although the draft received 74 public comments, the Conservation Lands Advisory Committee passed the plan 7-1 with few changes.

Overall, the plan adds a buffer zone between the Lincoln Hills homes and the Mount Jumbo open space and closes the social trails within the buffer zone. This was done to preserve the condition of the land and reduce trespassing, said Conservation Lands Program manager Jeff Gicklhorn. The plan also closes the Wildground social trail off the end of Wildground Lane that leads into the buffer zone and a spring seep complex.

“We have data showing the proliferation of user-created social trails, and unfortunately, our attempts at closures and restoration of these trails over time has been met with very limited success. There’s been direct sabotage, people have just walked in a new trail adjacent and the natural resource impacts are continuing,” Gicklhorn said.

As a result, the Sound of Music and Ponderosa Meadows trails will be the only trails leading from the Lincoln Hills trailhead. The Sound of Music trail will be modified and extended to make it more interesting, and the Ponderosa Meadows, Trail of the Bison and Tivoli trails will be designated for pedestrians only.

The plan mentioned the possibility of using remotely activated cameras to ensure compliance. Board member Wendy Ninteman expressed reservations about that, saying there’s no precedent for using cameras on conservation lands but it might set one. Missoula Parks and Rec Director Donna Gaukler said cameras are used only in enforcement situations in cooperation with the police. She proposed withdrawing the language so a larger discussion could be had on a city policy about cameras.

During public comment, four residents of Wildground Lane said they weren’t consulted and questioned the need to close the Wildground Trial because they’d never had an issue with trespassing. They said closing more than 20 social trails would create more pressure on the main trailhead.

“You’ve got a group of highly educated, civically minded, involved folks who live on Wildground Land who feel like they aren’t being heard,” said Amanda Duman. “I don’t think those questions that were proposed in the scoping survey were specific enough to really raise the issues that are critical.”

Valliant said the Homeowners Association leaders contacted him about trespassing on the HOA common land. Homeowner Tim McCue said he hadn’t been consulted but was willing to work with the HOA and the city to keep the Wildground Trail open.

Equestrians also asked that the plan be delayed because the creation of pedestrian-only trails meant that they would be forced onto trails with mountain bikers. Daniel Harper, Backcountry Horsemen of Missoula president, asked the board to research the safety issues faced by horse riders and to revamp the system to create slow and fast trails rather than pedestrian and shared use. He pointed to the trail system in Seattle, Wash., that has speed restrictions on shared-use trails.

“I want to tell you how frightening it is to be on a horse who can’t see behind and who is going to be very frightened of something coming very fast from behind,” Harper said. “I’ve had my own problems with bikes approaching. The situation is pretty scary. It seems to me that what we really need, instead of pedestrian only trails, is 2-mph trails. Remember, horses are really pedestrians.”

Dean Hoistad, who’s ridden the trails for decades, told the Current he liked to follow the Ponderosa Meadows trail south before finding a game trail to explore. He used to ride the trails to the north but has stopped because the number of mountain bikers riding that direction has surged over the past decade.

Hoistad told how legendary backcountry horseman Smoke Elser – who lives at the bottom of Lincoln Hills – helped Five Valleys Land Trust raise money to buy Mount Jumbo.
“He said, ‘Sure, I’ll give some trail rides and we’ll have some barbeques up on the hill.’ And sure as heck, people signed up and paid enough money where it made a difference,” Hoistad said. “So horses helped buy that place. And now they don’t even have a safe place to ride.”

Valliant said he couldn’t change the trail designations because the 2010 Conservation Lands Management Plan spells out only two types of trails: pedestrian and shared-use. But he added that it might be time to update the 2010 plan.

If he does, the Backcountry Horsemen would be there, Harper told the Current.

“We were expecting this result,” Harper said. “They said, ‘We’ll stick with this plan but we need to redo the overall plan.’ We intend to be part of that.”

Contact Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.