MILLTOWN – A deal up for review may finally open Milltown State Park’s river confluence to the public.
Montana State Parks officials want feedback on a plan to accept 10 acres from International Paper Co. that contain the best road access to the former Milltown dam site, where the Clark Fork and Blackfoot rivers now run freely.
Although the Clark Fork was restored to its channel in 2010, legal disputes over the land transfer held park development in limbo until now.
“There are still some things we have work out, but it’s working for both parties,” Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks chief legal counsel Becky Dockter said on Wednesday. “The result looks easy, but these things all take a process.”
Building a park with boating access, picnic areas and interpretative facilities at the historic site has been part of the dam removal project since 2005.
The state and federal governments earmarked about $6 million for the park's acquisition and operation, most of which came out of a settlement with the mining companies responsible for millions of tons of toxic tailings that piled up in the dam’s reservoir.
But while the cleanup was completed in 2012, access to the park site remained a separate and stalled issue.
The problem was a 16-acre parcel between Tamarack Road and the park entrance. While International Paper had offered to give it to the state, the property contained a landfill that state officials didn’t want responsibility for. And International Paper didn’t want to invest any more money in a parcel it wasn’t using.
The issue stayed in limbo until a year ago, when Gov. Steve Bullock toured the site and pledged to get personally involved. Dockter said the pace of negotiations picked up considerably after that, resulting in the current offer.
The proposal would leave six acres containing the landfill in International Paper ownership, while FWP would receive the 10 acres where the road passes. A draft environmental assessment of the deal is available online and up for public comment through Nov. 25.
Assuming it’s approved, Milltown State Park manager Mike Kustudia said bids for the remaining construction work could be put out this winter.
The road would need grading and paving, as would a parking area. The park plan calls for a small ranger station where FWP staff would work and provide visitor services, similar to but smaller than Travelers' Rest State Park in Lolo.
It would also have walk-in river access, picnic facilities and interpretative displays of the site’s cultural and historic features.
“We’re looking at a spring groundbreaking, and a late-summer or fall opening,” Kustudia said. “We’ve got our funding in place, and a design that’s 95 percent complete.”
FWP parks manager Chet Crowser said finishing the confluence area would tie together a growing network of trails, picnic areas and viewpoints elsewhere in the former dam reservoir area.
They include the bluff overlooking the former dam, trails running through the newly re-vegetated floodplain upstream from the confluence, the Black Bridge picnic area between Bonner and West Riverside, and the Kim Williams Trail leading back to the University of Montana campus.
“This will really be huge when we get the rest of this park online,” Crowser said. “We’ve heard from the public they’re very much ready to see this open.”