Without the diligence of Missoula’s prairie protectors, the Milwaukee Trail along the Clark Fork River might feature a lot fewer native plants.
On a weekday morning, Anne Greene grabbed her gardening gloves and headed over to do some weeding in the Clark Fork Native Prairie. When she got there, she was a bit unnerved to see representatives of Missoula city and NorthWestern Energy standing on the Milwaukee Trail talking about where to bury electrical lines associated with the new condominium development on S. 4th St. E. near the Missoulian building.
Greene knew the plan was to bury the lines under the Milwaukee Trail instead of under 4th Street. NorthWestern and the condo developers had complained a project under 4th Street was too expensive because they’d have to tunnel below a water main.
She also knew the city was taking the opportunity to widen the trail. But when she asked Missoula Parks and Trails Development manager Neil Miner on Monday where the trail would be widened, she was told the disturbed area would push 14 feet into the Native Prairie area.
“That means we might lose almost one-fourth and one-third of the two sagebrush communities at the west end of the Prairie,” Greene wrote to volunteers. “Why does the City require 14 feet of the Prairie when the Downtown Master Plan says “widen the Milwaukee Trail to 18 feet?” (The trail is 12 feet wide now.) We need to know what each of the additional feet is for.”
Greene and several volunteers have cared for the Clark Fork Native Prairie since botanist John Pierce planted it all 30 years ago. Instead of the nonnative grasses of the adjacent Missoulian or football field properties, the 2.5 acres are home to more than 90 species of native plants that resemble what the valley looked like more than 200 years ago.
The group was very concerned about what would be lost. They had more meetings with Miner and asked Ward 3 City Councilwoman Gwen Jones for help. And over the course of a day or two, the city clarified its design.
On Wednesday evening, Jones led the group around the Native Prairie to explain what would happen during construction planned for next week.
Instead of 14 feet, the disturbance will extend only 6 feet into the prairie. Those 6 feet include another 2 feet of asphalt added to the trail, and then 2 feet of gravel. Finally, the light poles will be installed another 2 feet out but only at set points along the trail.
On the north side of the trail, 2 feet of gravel will be added for runners and the river bank will be sloped and stabilized so less erosion will occur.
The group was relieved and pleased that the riverbank would be repaired.
Already, all the affected plants have been pulled and are being housed in a nursery until they can be replanted in the prairie. In some cases, pulling wasn’t necessary, because so many people have walked beside the trail that no plants were growing within the 6 feet.
Preventing more destruction of the prairie plants next to the trail once it is widened is a challenge yet to be addressed. But the group wants to minimize the threats to their dwindling plot.
It wasn’t the first time the city had recently considered cutting into the little park.
Last year, the city was going to lop off a chunk of the prairie along 4th Street to make more public parking and then cut a swath farther into the park to lay a concrete sidewalk.
University of Montana ecologist Erick Greene said that would have destroyed some of the healthiest shrubs in the park, including sumac, two species of mountain mahogany, a salt bush and five species of sagebrush, one about 6 feet tall and even wider around.
The Prairie proponents reached out to Jones for help.
Eventually, the city changed the plan to add a few parking spots in a grass area near the Missoulian, replaced the current parking with angled parking and use the space created to build a narrower sidewalk. The result is at least the south side of the park was saved.
“This is a really special row (of shrubs) here, and it could have been a sidewalk,” Erick said. “This was a really stressful time when we came out and saw the flags way over there. All of this could have been gone.”
NorthWestern Energy is supposed to start digging up the trail this week, but that’s not a given. Miner said that the city is requiring the developer to provide a bond of 110% of the cost estimate of the work, but the money hasn’t been received yet.
There can’t be too much of a delay because NorthWestern Energy has several other projects lined up.
“Ideally, it would have happened earlier, but there have been some stalls throughout the process, just some construction things on the developers’ side,” Miner said.
You can bet the Greene’s, John Pierce and others will be keeping a close watch on the construction.
“I appreciate people keeping an eye on this. Because it just takes one afternoon of somebody coming in here with a digger and then it’s gone,” Jones said.
Contact Laura Lundquist at firstname.lastname@example.org.