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Lolo Peak trails to reopen after post-burn rehabilitation

The Lolo Peak Trail runs through areas of severely burned forest, but also through pockets of green. This photograph was taken shortly after the fire. (Lolo National Forest)

A new landscape will greet the thousands of hikers who’ve waited patiently for more than a year to revisit the slopes of Lolo Peak.

Where the Lolo Peak Trail once ran through pockets of deeply shaded forest, it now begins at a fiercely burned trailhead and ascends through a mosaic of mixed-severity fire.

“That forest was pretty thick and pretty shaded,” said Al Hilshey, natural resources specialist for the Missoula Ranger District. “It will look a little different to people. They’ll enjoy a different landscape up there.”

Three of the forest’s most popular trails were burned over by last summer’s 53,902-acre Lolo Peak fire, and have been closed since July 2017: the main Lolo Peak Trail, the Mill Creek Trail off U.S. Highway 12 and the Lantern Ridge Trail.

“It’s a very popular place,” said Boyd Hartwig, the Lolo National Forest’s public information officer. “People have been very patient – going through the fire last year and then through all the work that’s happened since. It’s been a long wait, we know.”

Skiers hoped to access the trails last winter and were told “no,” then hikers when spring and summer rolled around. Again, the trails were not yet deemed safe for public use.

But all that patience will be rewarded on Saturday, Aug. 25 when the trails reopen.

Here’s what happened over the past year.

Hilshey said work began even as the fire burned, evaluating damage to the trail and any public safety issues.

The forest’s resources staff found hundreds of hazard trees that potentially fall and injure trail users and extensive damage to trail bed surfaces in many areas, Hilshey said. There was also concern about potential damage from fall and spring rains, and how public use can exacerbate that damage.

“In some of the areas, all the vegetative matter burned off,” he explained, “so those lands were very susceptible to erosion. And some of the trails had been undercut – the fire burned out the fill slopes and left these great big pock marks in the trail.”

In May, crews from the Lolo Forest and Montana Conservation Corps got to work, starting on the lower trails while the upper elevations remained snowy.

They cleared hundreds and hundreds of trees off the paths, did retread work on the damaged trail beds, and replaced 80 water bars that had burned.

“Large portions of trail burned very hard,” Hilshey said. “It was completely blackened around the main Lolo Peak trailhead.”

Hazard trees were removed and left in the forest, as they would have come down over time if left to nature’s timetable.

Now the trails are nearing completion, although hikers will likely encounter the work crews even after the Aug. 25 reopening, Hilshey said.

The water bar replacement work is the most difficult and time-consuming, he said. “They have to dig out the trail to put in the water bars, then reshape and retread it.”

“The work this summer is based on reducing the potential for erosion, the loss of soil productivity and protecting the infrastructure of the trail itself,” he said.

“A lot of good work has been accomplished.”

On all three trails, visitors will also now “see the fire” – at least its effects, said Hilshey. “Some of the trail is pretty open now. They’ll be some new views. The fire burned pretty hot up toward the ridge.”

But even as the rehabilitation crews got to work, the forest began its natural regeneration.

“Vegetation is starting to come back lower down on the mountain and is gradually working its way back up,” Hilshey said.

There was beargrass and fireweed earlier this summer in some of the lower reaches, and other grasses and shrubs.

It’s a good start, Hilshey said, of a new forest.