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A history group hikes along the Mullan Road on St. Regis Pass in 2014

LOOKOUT PASS – A planned ski run in the rugged Bitterroot Mountains on the Montana-Idaho state line won’t follow a remote segment of the historic Mullan Road, although it will cross it twice.

Developers of a planned expansion project for Lookout Pass Ski Area will reroute the run on the Montana side of St. Regis Pass to limit the footprint on the long-abandoned road, according to an agreement between two national forests and the historic preservation offices in both states.

The ski area is nearing the end of a years-long process with the Idaho Panhandle and Lolo national forests to secure a special use permit that would allow it to add two new lifts – one in each state – and ski trails covering 90 acres of new terrain south and west of the current ski area.

Ryan Foote, deputy district ranger for the Coeur d’Alene River Ranger District, said Thursday the Idaho Panhandle forest expects to receive a final environmental impact report from contractors by the end of next week and to issue a final record of decision in early November.

The report will include a memorandum of agreement that calls for the ski area to develop a treatment plan to protect the integrity of the Mullan Road during runoff or mechanical work in the area and to train its staff each winter and summer about the history and significance of the road.

With the help of the Mineral County Historical Society and Montana’s historical preservation office in Helena, exhibits or signs will be drafted and posted in the ski lodge, on the proposed runs and on Lookout Pass Ski’s website to illustrate the road’s significance to the development of the West.

The Forest Service will monitor the mitigation efforts before construction begins and every year thereafter for the life of the permit.

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Lt. John Mullan oversaw construction of the U.S. Military Wagon Road from Fort Walla Walla to Fort Benton in 1859-1862, and it soon became known as Mullan’s Road. It was the first engineered road through the Northern Rockies and, to the dismay of thousands of native inhabitants, opened up this remote region to encroaching whites when gold was struck in what quickly became northern Idaho and southwestern Montana.

St. Regis Pass, a mile and a quarter southwest of Lookout Pass, is accessible via a Forest Service and jeep road on the Idaho side. The 1.5-mile stretch from the top of the pass in Montana has been out of use for more than 100 years and is largely overgrown.

It’s ground that Jim Cyr of Superior has trod for much of his life. A retired highway engineer, Cyr belongs to the Mineral County Historical Society. When he learned in 2014 of the ski area’s expansion plans, he ground-truthed, mapped and flagged the road’s route and called it to the attention of the historical society and Forest Service.

Working with Lolo Forest archaeologist Erika Karuzas, Cyr led an expedition of Forest Service officials down the stretch last summer and made a convincing argument that its protection should be part of an environmental impact statement.

Karuzas created the memorandum of agreement in a process she said went through many drafts over the past seven months. Mineral County's board of commissioners and historical society were asked to be concurring parties to the agreement.  

Cyr and others in the Superior-based history group “really helped bring to light that historic and archaeological resources are important,” Karuzas said. “I’ve seen only positives working with the historical society.”

The historical society requested that Cyr be included in baseline study field work, compliance meetings and monitoring inspections.

"Mr. Jim Cyr is the most knowledgeable member of the (Mineral County Historical Society) in regards to the Mullan Road location, conditions and history," Peggy Temple, president of the society, wrote in a letter to Lolo Forest supervisor Tim Garcia last month.

But Cyr himself isn’t satisfied with the agreement.

“I feel like the whole section should be preserved,” he said. “I was kind of hoping they’d go ahead and put a tram in there and go over the top of it.”

“He would love it to go further, and we wish we had enough clout to make it go further,” said Temple. “But with an established ski area and the Forest Service, it’s hard to have that much clout. I kind of think having them move the original project off the road is the best we can hope for.”

Once the route of the Mullan Road was identified to the Forest Service’s satisfaction, “Lookout Pass was more than willing to work with us to see if a different run location would take away a good chunk of the impact,” said Foote, the Idaho deputy ranger.

“I think we actually came up with a really good alternative.”

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Mineral County, Veterans Issues Reporter

Outlying communities, transportation, history and general assignment reporter at the Missoulian