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BLM approves paving of Blackfoot River backroad

Only the western third of the road that runs through BLM land from Johnsrud Park to Whitaker Bridge will be paved. The work is tentatively scheduled to start in 2022. (BLM photo)

The Bureau of Land Management has decided to pave almost 6 miles of a Blackfoot River road due to increased traffic, part of which would likely be logging trucks.

Western Montana BLM District Manager Katie Stevens last week finalized her decision to pave and chip-seal about a third of the backcountry dirt road that runs along the Blackfoot River from Johnsrud Park east to the junction of Ninemile Prairie Road and Highway 200 near the Paws Up Ranch.

Only the western third of the road that runs through BLM land from Johnsrud Park to Whitaker Bridge will be paved. The work is tentatively scheduled to start in 2022.

“We know a lot of people value the undeveloped nature of this road as part of the overall recreation experience in this area, and so we carefully considered the tradeoffs associated with this road becoming more hardened and developed,” Stevens said. “On balance, the benefits outweigh the detriments, especially in light of maintenance costs when considering future recreation use around Missoula.”

The project was proposed at the beginning of this year after it was authorized to receive about $5 million from the Federal Lands Transportation Program. The BLM held one open house in January.

The BLM says chip-sealing the road will decrease its maintenance costs by 50% a year over 30 years. It also says the improvements will reduce noise and dust caused by vehicles on the road.

But it’s likely that not all of that noise and dust would have been related to recreational traffic. A good portion of it may come from more logging trucks traveling down the road.

Over the past few years, the BLM has been incrementally buying sections of a 13,000-acre property along Belmont and Burnt creeks north of the Blackfoot River from The Nature Conservancy. The land was part of the Plum Creek Timber selloff that contributed a lot of land in the Clearwater, Seeley and Swan drainages to the U.S. Forest Service. The most recent purchase in June transferred another 4,480 acres.

In 2016, the BLM bought the 5,500 acre Blemont Creek tract farther south to add to the Blackfoot Recreation Corridor bought in 1997 that includes the river and the road in question.

Then in 2017, the BLM published an environmental assessment of its plan to use logging and prescribed burns on its land in the lower Blackfoot corridor. The project area includes more than 20,500 acres adjacent the Blackfoot River for about 8 miles upstream from the McNamara or Whitaker Bridge.

Almost 12,000 acres is in the area purchased in 1997 and the rest is in the newer acquisitions. Within the area, 1,545 acres of timber harvest, 4,964 acres of chainsaw thinning and 2,472 acres of prescribed burns are planned. Some work has probably already been carried out in the intervening years.

In addition to determining that bull trout, grizzly bears and Canada lynx may be affected but not jeopardized, the plan identifies the Johnsrud Road as a haul route.

However, nothing in BLM’s release on the road mentions the wear and tear of logging trucks. The release says only that the project is intended to “improve safety and the travel experience by reducing the problem of washboard surfaces and potholes.” BLM representatives were not available on Thursday for comment.

The proposed work includes paving road and accesses to the day-use areas and Thibodeau campground, two narrow sections will be widened, wide areas will be narrowed to 20 feet, concrete jersey barriers will be replaced with guardrails, and vegetation will be removed or trimmed for sight distance. A new speed limit of 30 mph will be implemented.

While work is being conducted during spring through fall 2022, the recreation sites in this stretch – Darrell Sall Memorial, Daigles Eddy, Sheep Flats, and Thibodeau Rapids – and Thibodeau Campground will be unavailable.
For more information, call the Missoula Field Office at (406) 329-3914.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.