The Missoula County Parks and Trails Advisory Board on Monday named longtime Missoula teacher Roger DiBrito as the 2015 Parks and Trails Steward for his tireless dedication to public projects in the Lolo and Florence areas.
DiBrito and his wife Sharon, who live between Lolo and Florence, came to Missoula in 1976 as elementary and preschool teachers. Since then, DiBrito has been an extraordinary advocate of promoting public access to lands and sustainable transportation – even riding his bike to work every day when he taught in Missoula.
He currently is helping the county in an effort to acquire 56 acres of private land along U.S. Highway 93 west of Buckhouse Bridge over the Bitterroot River that eventually could be turned into a public park with a boat ramp, parking, bicycle trails and a bike camp. The land is close to the Blue Mountain and Fort Missoula areas.
DiBrito is working with volunteers and public and private agencies to figure out how to raise enough money – approximately $1 million by his estimation – to purchase the land.
“This land used to be a car dump," he said. “Then we knew the (Missoula to Lolo) Trail was going to come in here and it would block the access to the river. And so we approached the landowner and said we really want a trailhead to park cars and a place for people to get their boats in the water. And the landowner is interested in preserving this space."
It’s a beautiful riparian area, DiBrito said.
"This connects to university lands and through the river it connects to the big parks," he said. "It connects to the Blue Mountain Recreation Area and the landing at McClays. So we could have a beautiful trail system from here all the way over to the Forest Service wrapped around to O’Brien Creek."
The purchase would obviously depend on the cooperation of the landowner, and there are no official county plans for the land. However, DiBrito said a number of people have worked long and hard to discuss the property's potential.
A coalition of groups, including Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, Missoula County, Bike Walk Alliance Missoula, the Montana Department of Transportation and others, have been involved in conversations on the project going back a year.
In that year, a presentation was made to the Missoula Parks and Trails Advisory Board and there was an on-site meeting with the landowner, several government agencies, the Lolo Community Council and Hellgate Hunters and Anglers.
“We’re in this pretty deep,” DiBrito said. “And we’re looking for funding to generate the purchase of the property.”
He said the acquisition of the land would preserve “river bottom” open space, allow safe and convenient parking for river users, and provide an opportunity to build a proper launch and trailhead with parking, benches and toilets.
“So the people from Missoula, they can park here and ride to Lolo,” DiBrito said. “It could also be a canoe trail-pickup area. We are encouraging people to float from Florence and Lolo to down here. FWP and state lands border the river all the way up to Darby, so we’d like primitive camping along the river. So you could ride your bike up or float and camp down on the river in a primitive way."
Martha Yates, chair of the Missoula County Parks and Trails Advisory Board, called DiBrito an “Energizer bunny” because of how hard he works on issues related to public transportation.
“His enthusiasm and work knows no boundary,” she said. “He has worked for river access, worked for trails, he is always trying to improve the baseball fields and things around Lolo. He just goes and goes, and he doesn’t know how to stop working for the benefit of everybody."
In the 1980s, while chair of the Lolo Lions Club, DiBrito worked to identify sites for future parks and also was involved in advocacy and fundraising efforts for the development of many parks and trails.
He has been heavily involved in the new Lolo to Florence Trail, which has been incorporated into the Bitterroot Trail, and the soon-to-be-completed Missoula to Lolo Trail. His family cares for the Bitterroot Trail by adopting two picnic tables and conducting regular litter cleanups.
“I’m super excited and elated with how the bike path has turned out,” he said. “I have 10 grandchildren right here in Lolo and Florence and we ride here a lot. This will be great. We can ride into the farmers markets and not have to fight traffic.”
He is passionate about alternative transportation, has worked to secure grants from the Safe Routes to School program and has taught safe biking skills to countless children. He and his wife created the Journeys from Home Montana program to provide youth with the knowledge to safely and effectively walk and bike across their communities, effectively creating eco-minded citizens for life.
“It’s a great honor to be recognized for my service, though I really believe it’s both my duty and a privilege to contribute,” he said.
The award will be presented during the County Parks and Trails Advisory Board meeting at 1:30 p.m. Thursday in the upstairs Community and Planning Services conference room at 323 W. Alder St.