LOLO HOT SPRINGS – History rolls backward about 100 feet an hour at the upper end of Lolo Creek’s east fork.
“This is my first road deconstruction job,” Chase Stoker said while taking a break from the controls of his excavator. After churning up the old graded surface, Stoker scoops up whole alder thickets and log stumps to cover the new slope. The dirt looks surprisingly rich and brown for this high-elevation rocky hillside.
But grab a handful of that soil, and the reason for Stoker’s employment becomes apparent. It slips like sugar through the fingers, refusing to clump together. It does the same when rain washes it off the old road surface into a two-foot-wide tributary stream that drains the basin.
This former Plum Creek Timber Co. land now belongs to the Lolo National Forest. Decades of logging left a tangle of roads in the hills east of Highway 12. Erosion from that loose, granitic soil hurts the cutthroat and bull trout fisheries all the way down Lolo Creek to the Bitterroot River.
On its own, the Lolo Forest decommissioned 65 miles of road in upper Lolo Creek, pulling 37 culverts along the way. But because of the checkerboard nature of land ownership, it was only able to restore every other square mile. Consolidation of ownership through the Montana Legacy Project put all the road network in public hands, but didn’t provide any more money for work.
That’s triggered a new partnership among the Missoula-based Clark Fork Coalition, Montana Department of Environmental Quality and Westslope Chapter of Trout Unlimited to help the Forest Service complete the work.
Of the $230,000 needed to remove 12 miles of high-priority road in this drainage, the federal government contributed about $10,000. Most of that came as in-kind salary dollars for federal hydrologists like Dustin Walter, who’s been overseeing the worksites and processing the environmental permitting necessary for the project.
“These granitic soils are unique on the Lolo National Forest,” Walter said. “Any time you have unpaved roads, it causes sediment to erode. And when you have undersized culverts draining the roads, they plug or blow out. So you either have a chronic source of erosion or a catastrophic event that wipes the road out and sends a bunch of sediment through the stream.”
Instead, the road erasure reopens about 10 miles of stream to fish passage. Genetic studies have found a couple concentrations of genetically pure cutthroat trout using the upper Lolo tributaries. And a relatively new water-sampling process, developed at the National Genomics Center for Wildlife and Fish Conservation based on the University of Montana campus, has found DNA from federally protected bull trout in the watershed.
Even if those fish don’t use the Lolo tributaries now, they will benefit two ways from the rehabilitation. First, it will provide more clean, cold water that trout need to thrive in the main Lolo and Bitterroot waterways. And second, it could open new spawning territory for the fish as they explore the reopened streams.
The worksite is so remote, Stoker spends most of the week living in a trailer rather than spending hours commuting in and out of the woods.
The road erasure doesn’t affect existing groomed snowmobile trails or hiking trails in the area. A travel management review found that even Plum Creek kept the affected roads gated and closed. Clark Fork Coalition project manager Jed Whiteley said while the area receives some interest from huckleberry pickers and hunters, it’s seen little activity since it was last logged about 15 years ago.
But it will employ excavators like Stoker and Specialty Excavating owner Greg Dowdy for the next three years as they restore the landscape. As they looked over the jumbled surface, Dowdy coached Stoker on how to angle tree stumps to better catch rainwater.
“Every dollar spent up here flows down to the Missoula and Bitterroot valleys,” Whiteley said. “And five years from now, you’ll hardly know there was a road up here. In 20 years, it will be totally gone.”