BONNER – The loop around University Mountain gets about two miles shorter Friday, when the U.S. Forest Service takes title to the Deer Creek side of Missoula’s favorite play area.
“You just can’t do this in most of the world,” said Caroline Byrd of The Nature Conservancy. “There usually are too many disparate owners. But here we had one landowner to put it all back together.”
Byrd referred to Plum Creek Timber Co., which sold TNC the 1,709-acre parcel that stretches between the Milltown State Park overlook and Pattee Canyon Recreation Area, south of Bonner. The land was part of the Montana Legacy Project, in which TNC and the Trust for Public Lands brokered a transfer of 310,000 acres of timberland to public ownership. On Friday, TNC passes the title to the Forest Service for $1,992,660 from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund.
A gated logging road crosses the east face of the mountain, with entrances just a quarter-mile from either the Milltown overlook or the Pattee Canyon parking lots. Over the past two years, TNC hired loggers to cut 447,000 board feet of millable timber and excavators to retire several spur roads. Now the main route shows a stampede of bike tire tracks as cyclists explore a quieter, shorter route around Mount Sentinel and University Mountain.
“This opens up the possibility for a lot more recreation right next to town,” Missoula District Ranger Paul Matter said on a tour of the property. “I’m looking forward to the day when people can ride to Pattee Canyon, around these roads to Milltown, and then down the Kim Williams trail and back to town.”
The Lolo National Forest will start looking for partners to plan the area’s future in the next couple of years, Matter said. While there are no intentions to put campgrounds or other expansive facilities on the mountainside, the network of old roads and trails beckons bikers, hikers and horse riders. Plum Creek did not allow motorized access during its ownership, and the Forest Service plans to continue that, Matter said.
One big character change both TNC and the Forest Service have imposed is a cleanup of Deer Creek party zones. Both have organized hundreds of volunteer hours to haul away several 40-yard dumpsters worth of trash, including old refrigerators, abandoned cars and the remains of gunshot televisions. Several of the more popular sites have toppled trees that were literally shot down by bullets.
To discourage that, TNC blocked access to several places along Deer Creek with boulders and fences. One site was a notorious kegger field connected to numerous injury accidents on the road.
“And look at it now,” said Chris Bryant, TNC’s land protection specialist. “There aren’t any couches out there any more.”
Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.