LOLO CREEK – The Nez Perce National Historic Trail stretches for hundreds of miles through four states, retracing the flight of Chief Joseph and his people from the U.S. Army in 1877.
The narrow strip that runs behind Dave Trusty’s home is just a few hundred feet long.
“It’s actually a road to nowhere,” Trusty told Missoula County commissioners last week. “It goes to my backyard. You can’t go any farther than that.”
Off and on for more than 20 years, Trusty has been trying to convince the county to abandon the road to him – that is, to relinquish public ownership of something that hasn’t been used by the public since the 1950s.
On Wednesday, the commission said no.
Jean Curtiss and Bill Carey voted to deny abandonment, citing the wishes of the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee and the historic and cultural significance of the trail.
“I think it’s very important for us to honor the tribe’s wishes in this particular matter,” Carey said.
“It’s easy to see that having that public right of way going through someone’s private property – especially when it’s not a road that’s used on a regular basis or needed to access their property – is an encumbrance,” said Curtiss. “But it’s also important, I think, that we look at the fact that this is a congressionally designated historic trail. It’s on maps, and it’s also probably where Lewis and Clark walked.”
The third commissioner, Michele Landquist, abstained from voting. But she sided in no uncertain terms with Trusty.
Landquist noted the disturbances man and nature have already made to the stretch of road that make it unfit for any kind of public trail. She pointed to the more than $8,000 that Trusty has invested and the bureaucratic hoops he’s jumped through in his efforts to gain title, and to other abandonments of the historic trail on properties nearby that the county has approved.
“That road is within a few feet of (his) back door, and some of the neighbors’ back doors, and I just think that we’re not treating people fair,” Landquist said. “I realize that as new information makes itself known we should give some weight to that information, but I think in this case it’s absolutely wrong.”
The commissioners left the door open for Trusty to reapply, without additional fee, in the event an agreement can be reached to alter the designated route of the Nez Perce Trail in the area.
“I don’t see it,” Trusty said.
But an alteration to the route is doable and not unprecedented, assured Jim Evans, director of the nonprofit Nez Perce Trail Foundation.
Congress added the Nez Perce ( Nee-Me-Poo) Trail to the National Trails System in 1986 – a year after Trusty bought his place along U.S. Highway 12 six miles west of Lolo.
“I’d never heard about this historic trail until this stuff started coming up,” Trusty said.
The trail starts in the Wallowa Valley of northeastern Oregon, crosses the Bitterroot Mountains near Lolo Pass, loops into eastern Idaho and Wyoming at Yellowstone National Park and ends in the foothills of the Bear Paws in north-central Montana. That’s where troops laid siege to the cold and hungry band of men, women and children, and where Chief Joseph is said to have delivered his famous surrender speech that concluded: “From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.”
Just downstream from Trusty’s home is Fort Fizzle, where some 800 Nez Perce and 3,000 head of horses evaded a military blockade by taking to the ridges to the north.
Evans, who took part in Wednesday’s hearing via telephone from Salmon, Idaho, said it’s important to note that the Nez Perce Trail isn’t really a trail at all, but a corridor for the infamous flight.
“When you have that many people and that many horses, you take the route of least resistance to get them through,” he said.
The Nez Perce Trail Foundation that Evans directs is dedicated to protect, preserve and commemorate the designated trail.
“We have this type of situation on the 1,170 miles of the trial where developments have come right to the apex of the trail,” he said.
Roughly 61 percent of the trail is in private ownership, and public easements have been secured on 30 percent of that. The foundation also works with counties to lease the land the trail crosses. Plum Creek, which owns the timbered hillside above Trusty’s land, has granted the foundation easements to right of way through a lot of the checkerboard areas the trail traverses. The trail to the west of Trusty’s for miles has been abandoned, much of it without protest from the Nez Perce tribes, which puzzles Curtiss.
Highway 12 is a designated auto tour route for the Nez Perce Trail, but the corridor of the trail is usually about a quarter mile wide, Evans said.
“We’d be happy to work with the landowner and protect his investment. Maybe an actual foot trail or equine trail can be moved up the hill so that we would not come close to his place,” Evans said.
Trusty said he’s more than willing to grant an easement across the front of his property along Highway 12 if the county wants to extend a paved bike-pedestrian trail that far.
“I think we’d all be better served if collectively all the entities worked together to designate Highway 12 as the scenic highway or historic viewshed or whatever,” Landquist said.
Part of the problem for Trusty is that two old roads once ran behind his house, separated by about 100 feet. Last year he bought the three-quarters of an acre between the two from Plum Creek, and executed a boundary relocation back to the most distant one.
“For some reason the county surveyor went by where the (closest) road was,” Trusty said. “So this trail’s going to run 30 feet from my backdoor,” he said.
Trusty sent a letter last December to the county, requesting the $300 fee for a road abandonment petition be waived. He discussed the lengths and costs he’s gone through, starting with a non-refundable $75 fee in 1992 when his petition was turned down “due to the interest of Champion International,” he wrote.
The sliver of land he bought from Plum Creek and the additional consultant and surveyor fees totaled more than $5,200.
Trusty’s plea ended in almost Chief Joseph-esque eloquence.
“I am old and tired and trying to achieve full retirement. Just being semi-retired is proving to be unaffordable,” he wrote. “My end goal here is to be able to sell my property and downsize, but my property is encumbered by this old road.”