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By: Robert Janis

US Forest Service

U.S. Forest Service Leads Diverse Groups in Converting Railroad Route into Multi-Use Trails

Hiawatha Bridge
Hiawatha Bridge

The high land area in Montana near the Idaho border where the Lolo National Forest is located is territory that features an amazing and diverse range of scenery. There are abundant numbers of larch trees that actually turn gold in the fall. Then there is remote country that serves as home for deer, elk, moose, and wolves. As the terrain swings down toward Interstate 90, you come upon the St. Regis River, then cottonwood flats that feature a number of small towns. The land rises again into the mountains as you head toward the Montana town of St. Regis where the route comes upon a fairly open valley where the St. Regis River meets the Clark Fork River in Montana. A mere description of the place using just words doesn’t do it justice. In short, it is one of the prettiest scenic areas in all of the west.

The United States Forest Service has been, and is still involved with managing the area for multiple use recreation from bicycle riding and hiking to motorized vehicles including ATVs and pickups.

To say the least, it has not been an easy endeavor, and the tough work continues. Two railroads, the Milwaukee and the Northern Pacific, once had rails there. Moreover, the Milwaukee route still includes railroad trestles and tunnels. “The Milwaukee Railroad ran from Chicago to the Puget Sound in Washington,” explained Beth Kennedy, resource district staff for the Lolo National Forest Superior Ranger District.  “The Milwaukee started to crumple in the late 1960s and early 70s, and it soon fell into bankruptcy. Some of the line was pulled out and taken by other rail companies.  Other parts were salvaged and sold to deal with the bankruptcy, and a rail bed was left.”

The Milwaukee Railroad was not a land grant enterprise. Instead, it was privately owned. So, when it abandoned the area, a fair amount of the property went to adjacent private land owners. The Lolo National Forest surrounds much of the area, which includes the Taft or St. Paul Pass Tunnel that runs from Montana to Idaho. The tunnel is more than a mile long. Kennedy noted that some projects to convert the land into trail were begun on the Idaho side. However, before the process could begin, most of the land fell under private ownership.

“Various groups got together who were interested in using that area for recreation,” explained Kennedy. “And some land was purchased. First, a little over 17 miles of the old railroad grade was bought primarily by the U.S. Forest Service and that process took quite a few years. This section has multiple tunnels and trestles that were brought up to standard and became part of the Route of the Hiawatha.” Bicycles ride the trail today, but developing the area into trail took a lot of time and an amazing amount of effort by the Forest Service.

Kennedy explained that the work to create the Route of the Olympian trail started in the late 1990s. The route extends from Taft to St. Regis. “The Forest Service owned pieces of it, but not a long enough piece that could be used on any kind of recreational system,” said Kennedy. “In that 30 mile stretch there were 15 private parcels and most of those parcels cut off access to the public land. A lot of landowners didn’t really make an effort to keep people off. So use got established, although a lot of that was trespassing. All the private parcels except one were up for sale, and on other sections we lost a lot of access because private citizens bought the land and constructed houses on it.  As we watched, a lot of land was lost, and we didn’t want to lose much more. So, we worked with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Recreational Program, and a private organization called Five Valleys Land Trust.  Over a period of seven years we together were able to purchase 13 of the 15 parcels.” The Forest Service, the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, and the Five Valleys Trust funded the purchases.

Hiawatha Bridge
Hiawatha Bridge

Part of that land is not useable, but it also includes the railroad that was built in 1910. “The trestles and tunnels are one hundred years old and the concrete is in poor shape. So, when we received the land, we proceeded to do the long and expensive process of bringing the tunnels and trestles and small bridges up to standard,” said Kennedy. Funding for the construction work came from a variety of sources.  Money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), also known as the Obama Stimulus program, funded the work done on the Dominion Tunnel and Trestle project. A county funding source called the Resource Advisory Committee (RAC) is providing money for work on other sections. And RAC has matched funding from the Forest Service for work on smaller bridges.

According to Kennedy, the Dominion Construction project started in 2010 and is almost complete. The project was offered for competitive bidding and a company that is familiar with bringing trestles and bridges up to standard and who already has special equipment to do the work was selected. Local engineers are doing the work on the smaller projects.

“The Dominion construction is hard to do because the trestles are so high,” explained Kennedy. “It is quite complex. The Dominion Tunnel and Trestle are 50 yards of open space from each other. The tunnel is over 400 feet long, and the trestle is about 775 feet long. They both curve right at the head of the Dominion Creek Drainage. The tunnel is lined fully in concrete that was starting to peel off. The engineers said that in some places the concrete was the consistency of a shortbread cookie. You could chip the concrete away with a screwdriver. The trestle is quite high and has iron framework. Both the tunnel and trestle had to be closed off since the 1970s for safety reasons. We never had funding to do anything with it until the stimulus program offered the money. It was a miracle that we could get enough money to do something with these two things.” Now the construction is nearly done, and they will be safe for trail users.

The tunnel and trestle are located on a very narrow piece of land. So the construction crew is small. Kennedy said that a crew of six worked the area at any given moment depending on what stage of work they were in.

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