The Montana Department of Transportation will enlist professional help to clean up “The Island,” a loose community of at least 22 identifiable campsites east and west of the Reserve Street Bridge in Missoula.
Ed Toavs, MDT’s Missoula district administrator, on Wednesday told local civic and law enforcement leaders that the department was seeking an environmental contractor to do the job but he wanted to make sure they all were on board.
“There’s going to be permitting involved, so the main thing is we want to make sure we do everything correctly when we go to clean this up and we’re not missing anything that somebody else might think of,” Toavs said.
Most of the illegal camps are in the floodplain south of the Clark Fork River, on land that according to Toavs was bought by MDT to use as a borrow source when Reserve Street was built decades ago.
Many but not all the camps appear abandoned as winter sets in, but the Island becomes a teeming village of tents, shanties and, in one case, a two-story wood hut in warm weather.
Health officials worry about the excrement, trash and debris that get washed down the river, especially during high water. Law enforcement officers worry about safety issues, for neighbors, sportsmen and river cleanup crews who venture into the area, though only occasional violence has been reported over the years.
On Wednesday, at MDT’s Missoula district headquarters, Toavs called together a group that included Missoula County Sheriff Carl Ibsen, Assistant Police Chief Mike Brady, County Commissioner Michele Landquist, Missoula Mayor John Engen (via teleconference) and city-county health officials.
On hand, too, were Travis Mateer, the homeless outreach coordinator for the Poverello Center, as well as the Transportation Department maintenance chief Jack May and maintenance engineer Steve Miller.
They discussed a three-pronged strategy to remove the camps on an unadvertised date and clean up what Ibsen said were “massive amounts of trash” near the river, all before spring runoff and ideally much sooner. Then comes the hard part – discouraging re-establishment of the camp.
Unlike other bridges in Missoula, the Reserve Street span doesn’t have people living directly underneath it. Some of the encampments can be seen by neighbors and passers-by, while others are tucked well away from view.
“It’s like Vietnam, some of it,” May said. “It’s a jungle down there. You can be 50 feet away (from a campsite) and not even know it’s there.”
Mateer has visited the Island several times in recent months to educate campers on the social services available to them in town at the Poverello Center. He said on one occasion a camper paid $200 to secure a preferred site by another who was moving out.
Brady and Ibsen agreed it’ll take continued vigilance to keep the Island camps from popping up again. They likened the campaign to police efforts over the past four decades to limit the illegal campsites on the Kim Williams Trail in Hellgate Canyon east of town.
“If all these years doing this line of work gives me any insight into it, we will move the difficulty rather than 100 percent eliminate it,” Ibsen said.
Mateer said he suspects that campers with the mobility to access and live on the Island will move to the Kim Williams Trail when it’s shut down.
That, Toavs said, is why he wanted to get others involved in MDT’s cleanup. It will undoubtedly effect the city, county and perhaps private landowners. The state will foot the bill for purging its own land of the illegal camps, but Toavs doubts that state taxpayer dollars can be tapped for the properties of others.
Peter Nielsen of the Missoula City-County Health Department brought the matter to MDT earlier this year after receiving complaints from residents for the past several years.
His staff has attempted to follow up the complaints by checking the site out, “but it’s been difficult to do that,” Nielsen said. “They’ve encountered hostile situations and haven’t been very productive in getting things done.”
The matter came to a head after those participating in an Earth Day river cleanup were warned by police not to venture into the area, even though it was a prime target area to be cleaned.
Nielsen said later in the summer he was in the Kelly Island area downstream from the illegal campsites and noticed “a lot of trash that I had not seen in previous years in that area – camping-related trash like sleeping bags and backpacks that obviously had washed down from, if not this area, a similar area upstream. And this one’s pretty close.”
He gave May a call at MDT and set the wheels in motion.
“It became clear the more we looked at it that maybe we’d been looking the other way on this area for a long time,” Nielsen said. “It’s gotten to where people have dug in down there and become established to a degree that’s uncommon in many other areas where folks camp.”
Reporter Kim Briggeman can be reached at 523-5266 or at email@example.com.