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Usually in a story about bulldozers and tiny rare plants, the bulldozers play the villains.

But the heavy equipment soon to be moving across the face of Waterworks Hill north of downtown Missoula is the rescuer this time, saving little Missoula phlox flowers from the rampages of too many hikers.

A redesign project will close part of the ridgeline trail to the Waterworks radio towers and replace it with a new route farther down the slope.

On Monday, students from the University of Montana College of Technology heavy equipment program walked the hillsides to see where their skills would soon be put to use. While they looked, another crew from the Missoula Department of Parks and Recreation finished digging up pallet loads of native grasses, flowers and shrubs from the future path.

“One of the only places where you find Missoula phlox is right here on this hilltop,” said Parks and Rec open space worker Kate Sousa. “We’ve been trying to keep people from walking on them.”

Unfortunately, the phlox prefers to grow on the windswept creases of the hill where the soil is driest and thinnest. That’s also the half-mile stretch where the trail is very steep and braided.

“Where people are using the (ridgeline) trail, it went from 1 1/2 feet to 4 feet wide in some places,” said Janet Sproull of Rattlesnake Land Trust. “That’s the whole area where cushion plants were being trampled.”

Volunteers tried lining the trail with rocks, putting up signs about the flowers, raking away the trail braids and other efforts, but nothing seemed to work. The problem was especially bad in winter, when the central trail got iced over and walkers spread out to find better footing.

That part of the trail passes through a 108-acre conservation easement on private land before it reaches the city-owned, 800-acre part of Waterworks Hill. Sproull said part of the justification for the easement was the presence of the rare flowers.

Compounding the problem, the old jeep trail farther down the slope is too steep for trucks to reach the radio towers. So maintenance workers have had to travel from the Moon-Randolph Homestead, a much longer route that also puts sensitive native plants at risk.

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The new route is being designed to both pull hikers off the ridgeline where the phlox grows and give trucks safer access to the radio towers. Another road heads west from the towers to the summit of Waterworks Hill, staying on the popular ridgeline. That road is already so established, few plants colonize it and it’s wide enough to accommodate hikers walking abreast.

Parks and Rec director Donna Gaukler said the Waterworks route is one of the most well-used social and fitness hikes in the city’s open space program. While losing a bit of the ridgetop was probably going to draw complaints, she added it would improve the native plant displays that people enjoy.

Those plants, like hairy golden aster, cushion buckwheat and blue-bunch wheatgrass, were what Sousa and her fellow diggers were after.

When the new trail route is established, the refugee plants will be replanted in the over-hiked parts of the conservation easement trail. That trail will eventually be obliterated.

The project is expected to cost $19,000, much of which is covered by grants and in-kind donations. The work is expected to take two or three weeks and finish by mid-November.

A volunteer work day is set for Nov. 6 to finish the planting and trail work. Get on the volunteer list for the project at www.wlrv.org/nrockies or by calling chapter director Graham Roy at 493-6634.

Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at rchaney@missoulian.com.

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