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The Black Bridge in Milltown.

Getting a Christmas gift you can’t use until summer is always a mixed blessing, especially when its fine print reads “some assembly required.” 

But river lovers have been waiting for 10 years to play at Milltown State Park, and now have a potential opening in view. The past year was one of quiet, gradual movement toward what may become one of the most significant state parks in Montana.

“There’s still some paperwork going back and forth between our attorneys and International Paper,” park manager Mike Kustudia said on Christmas Eve, just before heading out to clear snow off the overlook portion of the park. “Assuming that comes through, we want to get the final site plan and have that put out to bid this winter. Then we could be breaking ground in spring with an opening in late summer or early fall.”

The overlook interpretative area above the confluence of the Clark Fork and Blackfoot rivers has been done for almost four years. So has the Black Bridge picnic area and pedestrian bridge spanning the Blackfoot between Milltown and West Riverside. Milltown Dam was breached in 2008, and work excavating its floodplain and new channels wound up in 2009.

But the big goal was at the confluence itself, where plans for a park with boating access, picnic areas and interpretative facilities at the historic site were part of the dam-removal project since 2005. The state and federal governments earmarked about $6 million for the park acquisition and operation, most of which came out of a settlement with the mining companies responsible for 3 million tons of toxic tailings that piled up in the dam’s reservoir.

Restoration of the riverside vegetation forced Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks officials to close public foot traffic along the Clark Fork River above the confluence for four years. That prohibition was quietly lifted last summer, after the trees and shrubs showed they had taken firm root.

FWP also opened to the public 1 1/2 miles of trail in the floodplain below the overlook last summer. That area is one of the “First Day Hikes” on New Year’s Day at state parks across Montana, starting at 11 a.m. from the overlook along Deer Creek Road.

The other challenge to the confluence area was access. Missoula County had an open road to the site, but it involved a low, one-lane underpass that wasn’t big enough for safe traffic or emergency vehicle access. The other, more developed road went across a 16-acre parcel belonging to International Paper, which used to operate Bonner’s lumber mill.

Negotiations over how to cross that property dragged on for several years, with International Paper willing to donate the land but unwilling to provide detailed inspections state officials wanted to ensure they weren’t acquiring another cleanup project.

In November, a compromise was announced in which International Paper would give title to six acres where the road passed to the state while keeping the other 10 acres containing an old landfill. Final details of that agreement are still getting hammered out.

“The heart of it is getting the confluence and what we call the gateway areas developed,” Kustudia said.

That includes finding a way to use the old railroad tunnel that could connect the floodplain to the popular Kim Williams Trail leading to Missoula, and connecting the confluence area to another publicly owned 47-acre riverside parcel upstream along the Blackfoot River.

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.