Marilyn Marler jokingly refers to herself as the “Lorax” of Mount Sentinel.

As the University of Montana’s natural areas specialist, one of her main duties is to help monitor and improve the health of the iconic “M” trail and surrounding mountain acreage owned by UM.

As a guardian of this special place, and at the job since 1998, Marler hears a lot of community feedback.

Over the years, there’s been a chronic complaint no one can argue with: When you approach the M trail, there’s nothing that says, “Welcome to the most hiked place in all of Missoula.”

“It feels like you are arriving at the bathrooms,” Marler said Sunday, as she pointed to the large, modern bathroom at the base of the trail on the side of the mountain.

“After you get pass the bathroom, there’s a long skinny trail to a gate, and then you finally get to the trail,” she said.

When Marler discussed the possibility of an improvement project with the Montana Native Plant Society last year, it was quickly realized that engineering expertise would be required because the area leading up to the trail is so steep.

Not to be daunted, Marler contacted WGM Group, a Missoula engineer and planning design firm, which said it would happily donate its services –$8,000 in expertise – to such a project.

With the experts in knowhow backing the idea, Marler then approached the Run Wild Missoula club, which responded to the call for help with a $16,000 challenge grant.

Runner’s Edge, the downtown running shop, stepped in to help with fundraising efforts by selling attractive “M” trail T-shirts for $30 with 100 percent of the proceeds going to support the project.

Now Marler is taking the cause to the public in hopes of raising the remaining $15,000 needed, as well as masonry supplies and fill material.

The $31,000 project will begin in the spring of 2014, and its main feature includes an terraced open-air plaza that will accommodate about 30 people and be handicap accessible, all ringed by a sitting wall.

Other features of the improved trailhead area will include a drinking fountain for dogs, native plants instead of lawn, and a more cohesive tie-in to the existing covered shelter that exists near the bathrooms.

Any excess funds raised, will go toward future maintenance, Marler said.

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“The University of Montana is a great client of ours, and we were happy to get involved with this project and help them with an underutilized area in need of improvements,” said Brent Campbell, WGM president.

Creating a welcoming and formal trailhead is a great idea, he said, because “everybody who comes to Missoula hikes the ‘M,’ and we have people from all over the world walk and hike the trail and the mountain.

“To have a place where it is easy to congregate, and to rest before and after climbing the trail is great.”

Marler, who often guides school field trips up the mountain, is especially thrilled with the idea of having a meeting place that is easy to find for those groups and can serve as an outdoor classroom.

It will also be nice to have a high-profile area to post management or educational information, such as the spraying schedule for noxious weeds and upcoming volunteer events, she said.

The improved area will also put a spotlight on a kiosk that explains the mountain’s native plant species, which is currently in a difficult-to-access location.

“We were excited to get involved with this because this is such a popular place for our running and walking community,” said Darr Tucknott, board president of Run Wild Missoula, which has about 1,600 members. “We felt it was an important project because it really is the gateway to Mount Sentinel.”

“We have been looking for a project like this to support for awhile,” added Eva Dunn-Froebig, executive director of Run Wild Missoula. “It fits perfectly with our mission, and the $16,000 we have given is the biggest donation we have ever given to something.”

The running club donates between $20,000 and $25,000 annually to community causes from proceeds of the many races it holds, including the Missoula Marathon and Half Marathon, Dunn-Froebig explained.

“I think it will be really nice for the entire community to have nice welcome to the trail,” she said, “and to have an area that feels like a meeting place.”

Thrilled that early fundraising efforts have taken the project to the financial halfway point, Marler is hoping other fans of the “M” trail will step forward with the remaining money needed to fund the project.

“I think it will be beautiful, and it will fit in,” Marler said. “We want to make it feel like you are arriving at place.

“And this place is special.”

Reporter Betsy Cohen can be reached at 523-5253 or at bcohen@missoulian.com.

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