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A new and improved Milltown State Park has a tentative public opening date, and it may include a significant addition when the public finally gets to play at the confluence of the Clark Fork and Blackfoot rivers.

Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks regional parks director Chet Crowser said June 23 could see completion of the parking lot, picnic structures and access road to the downstream riverside portion of the park complex. Meanwhile, he’s close to adding a donation of 36 acres upstream from the Bonner Development Group’s private park site.

“A lot of people have been patiently waiting to see this materialize,” Crowser told the FWP Parks Commission during a meeting at Traveler’s Rest State Park on Tuesday. Access issues have dogged the project since 2013, as the state and International Paper negotiated over clean-up liability for a road right-of-way.

That problem was resolved last year, and serious work got going through much of the 2017 construction season. At the same time, the agency has been working on some due diligence matters involving the Bonner Development Group donation. Crowser said that specifically concerned a Montana Rail Link overpass leading into the private park land from Bonner Elementary School.

Although the upstream park site was donated to the community in the 1990s, its proximity to the federal Superfund cleanup project that removed Milltown Dam forced its closure to the public. Even after the project wound up in 2013, access issues and a need to protect sensitive riverbank vegetation kept the area closed for years. However, BDG did allow Bonner Elementary School teachers to hold classes there.

Bonner Superintendent Jim Howard said the special arrangement has been a boon for his students.

“Bonner Development Group had very kindly offered it to the school district,” Howard said. “But that’s not the kind of project we’re set up to take on financially. We don’t have the staffing and oversight for a place like that. So I think the approach through Fish, Wildlife and Parks is a good one for our community. It will serve our students in the way we’ve become used to.”

On Wednesday, Bonner first-grade teacher Kristin Vogel led her students through the playground, across the frontage road and down the winding path to the picnic shelter BDG had built overlooking the river. She said the park gave her a chance to show children the snowy footprints of wild foxes in winter and wildflowers in spring without the hassle of a field trip.

Those opportunities should be open to the general public this spring, Crowser said. The BDG addition means Milltown State Park’s confluence area will have picnic facilities and bathrooms on both banks of the Blackfoot mouth, accompanied by benches crafted from logs from the former Bonner and Milltown sawmills salvaged from the Blackfoot River. A fundraiser to help pay for some of that construction is set for March 28, the 10th anniversary of the breaching of Milltown Dam.

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.