‘Opportunistic:’ Open space committee approves purchase of Milwaukee Trail easement

Acquiring the public access easement along Schmidt Road costs roughly $25,000, with funds coming from the countywide 2006 Open Space Bond. The easement will make room for the extension of the Milwaukee Trail as the Mullan area grows. (Alex Mitchell/Missoula Current)

The Open Space Advisory Committee has agreed to purchase an easement near Mullan Road to extend the Milwaukee Trail further west in anticipation of future growth.

The city of Missoula doesn’t have access to a significant portion of the Milwaukee Trail railroad bed west of Reserve Street. The decision to purchase the easement was an “opportunistic” move, according to Grant Carlton, the open space program manager for the city of Missoula.

The easement includes one-half mile of Schmidt Road to its intersection with Mullan Road.

“We’ve got a willing landowner, and it’s at a low cost for us,” Carlton said. “It’s opportunistic, we got to just go for it.”

Acquiring the public access easement cost roughly $25,000 with funds coming from the countywide 2006 Open Space Bond. The bond was designed to conserve working lands, protect wildlife habitat and provide trails and access to rivers, among other things.

They would have followed the Milwaukee Railroad past Schmidt Road, but Carlton said there’s a house in the middle of that section now, so the extension of the Milwaukee Trail to Schmidt Road worked best.

Before the extension can be developed, access will need to be purchased on the three parcels between the Clark Fork River and Schmidt Road. They already have an easement on one.

Carlton said they have positive relations with the landowners and hope to purchase additional access at a later date.

Grant Carlton, the open space program manager for the city, speaks with the Open Space Advisory Committee on Schmidt Road. The old Milwaukee Railroad bed stretches behind him. (Alex Mitchell/Missoula Current)

The future easements will allow for the connection of the Milwaukee Trail and provide access to the Clark Fork Islands, which were purchased by the city near the Tower Street Conservation Area. A bridge is currently being planned to cross the Clark Fork River channel.

But committee member Eric Anderson said plans for the bridge are in a challenging location. When the water is high, the river splits into a dozen little channels. Anderson, a professional engineer with WGM Group, said it didn’t look like it would be a good place for a bridge.

However, he voted for the easement.

“I’m of the opinion that it’s a puzzle piece to making the larger portion of the trail come together, but again, this is such a low cost for the easement that it is a minor concern for me,” Anderson said.

Carlton said planners of the bridge haven’t expressed concern with its proposed location. Even if the bridge doesn’t pan out, he said, the purchase of easements from Schmidt Road to the Clark Fork River will still provide river access.

Committee member Kristine Ackland was the only member to vote against the easement. She said funds from the 2006 Open Space Bond didn’t account for this type of purchase.

“I don’t think it is the job or requirement of the funds to do that for the city,” Ackland said. “I think we all understood that when people voted for the Open Space plan, they voted for no overdevelopment, not (the easement). $25,000 is not that much, but it’s not what the fund was built for.”

Committee chair Rob Erickson said it’s one of the necessary “years-long” steps in connecting neighborhoods to open space like the Clark Fork Islands.

“It is going to improve these people’s open land access immensely,” Erickson said. “It seems like we’ve been proceeding this way for years. Of course, we’re skipping a couple steps, but I think we’ve been following this progression for a long time.”

The Easement is part of an eventual goal to have one continuous trail system in Missoula.

“The goal would be to connect this trail to the airport and then eventually to the North Hiawatha Trail,” Carlton said.