Sawmill Gulch Road will be plowed and widened Wednesday by a Missoula County road grader, and warning signs will be posted as an interim safety measure this winter.
The plowing and signage come as the county commission wrestles with a request from Sawmill Gulch area residents to establish it as a public road in order to alleviate what they call safety risks posed by people getting stuck on the narrow road or parking illegally, which interferes with traffic flow.
“Since we last met, the sheriff and undersheriff took a look, and there isn’t anyone that’s not in agreement that it’s a real problem that needs to be solved,” County Commissioner Josh Slotnick said on Thursday. “There is the potential for an emergency because parked cars can block emergency vehicles.”
He said the county can only post warning signs, because it doesn’t have the authority to ticket and tow on what the county believes is a Forest Service road.
“The signs will warn people that there’s no turnaround and that it’s a dangerous place to drive, and they shouldn’t be driving there,” Slotnick said. “Obviously, that might not stop everyone, but we’ll do our best.”
Erik Dickson, the county engineer, is asking the public to stay away from Sawmill Gulch road while the grader is working. He expects they’ll be in the area beginning at 10 a.m. Wednesday. Along with pushing snow off of the road, the grader operator also will clean out the pullouts that allow one vehicle to pull over to let one pass in the opposite direction.
The county is notifying area residents about the timing of the work so they also can plan their departures and arrivals, because the grader will take up the bulk of the road. Dickson said they’ll plow up to Russian Joe Road.
“I don’t believe there will be a lot of people up there for cross-country skiing, snowshoeing or general walking mid-week,” Dickson said. “We might put up some advance notice signs on Monday to double up our efforts to notify recreationalists.”
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The county has set up a meeting from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. on April 4 to walk the stretch of road with officials from the Lolo National Forest and talk about what options might be available to resolve the situation. A representative from the Forest Service couldn’t be reached for comment on Friday.
Sawmill Gulch is a 14-foot-wide road that’s a mile long and is used by about 10 families to reach their homes. The twisting road with blind corners narrows to about one lane during the winter, when it also ices over.
The road begins near the trailhead parking lot for the popular Rattlesnake National Recreation Area, and as use increases on the public lands and the parking area fills, people are driving up Sawmill Gulch Road to access additional trails.
In December 2018, a group of Sawmill Gulch area homeowners petitioned the county to establish it as a public road in the hopes deputies could ticket and/or tow illegally parked vehicles. The homeowners said as recreational use of the area increases, the residents find their route to and from their homes often is blocked — sometimes for hours — by stranded vehicles, and they often pull people out of the ditches that line the road, especially during the winter.
While the road accesses the Forest Service’s Sawmill Gulch trailhead, the federal agency doesn’t do any plowing and only minimal, if any, maintenance on the road, according to the residents. Instead, they're doing the work and are worried about liability if someone is seriously injured or dies from an accident on the road.
Resident Steve Grinnell has said that from early November through March, the steep road is a “dangerous, anxiety-producing nightmare,” with minimal shoulders and deep ditches for most of its length.
While it’s been used for decades by the public, creating what’s known as prescriptive easement that gives the public the right to use Sawmill Gulch Road, Deputy County Attorney John Hart said in December he can’t find any paperwork saying the matter had been adjudicated or that it is a county-owned road. That means the property owners on either side — the Forest Service to the north and the residents to the south — own the road from the center line out, unless the county adopts it.
The public hearing on the petition will resume at 2 p.m. April 11 at the county commission meeting in the Sophie Moiese meeting room on the first floor of the Missoula County Courthouse.