Missoula County commissioners agreed Thursday to tour the Sawmill Gulch Road area, but voiced reservations about making it a county-owned road.
After viewing a PowerPoint presentation and hearing testimony from area residents, Commissioner Cola Rowley said they’ll figure out a date in which representatives from the county, the U.S. Forest Service, area residents and other interested parties can see first-hand the problems posed by the one-mile stretch of mostly paved road.
But she noted that the substandard design of the 14-foot-wide road, which ices over during much of the winter and has blind curves, gives her pause in adopting it even if the county doesn’t upgrade or maintain it.
“We already own over 600 miles of road, and we can’t maintain even half of them,” Rowley said. “How is it in the public interest to take over this road?”
She also questioned whether establishing county ownership just so “no parking” signs could be erected and vehicles stuck in the snow could be towed is practical.
“Every time we put up ‘no parking’ signs the results are disappointing,” Rowley said. “People don’t heed signs. We could ticket and tow, but keep in mind how busy our patrol deputies are.
“If we accept this road, I’m happy to discuss solutions, but there’s no silver bullet … and this road still will be a problem.”
Ten families currently reach their homes via the one-mile Sawmill Gulch Road, which begins near the trailhead parking lot for the popular Rattlesnake National Recreation Area. As recreational use of the area is increasing, the residents are finding that their route to and from their homes often is blocked — sometimes for hours — by stranded vehicles, and they’re often pulling 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. Instead, that’s typically done by the residents, who say the situation has turned into a public safety issue and they’re worried about liability if someone is seriously injured or dies from an accident on the road.
Those concerns prompted them to petition the county to take ownership of Sawmill Gulch Road.
“It’s a very steep hillside road with minimal shoulders and deep ditches for most of its length,” said Steve Grinnell, who lives in the area. “From early November through March or early April, the road is a dangerous, anxiety-producing nightmare.”
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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 he can’t find any paperwork saying the matter has 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.
John Barrett, who lives off of Russian Joe Road for about 10 years, said along with the ill-equipped drivers who try to reach the Sawmill Gulch trailhead in the winter, there’s also problems with teenagers having parties and bonfires in the summer, even though the road supposedly is closed after 10 p.m.
“No one is monitoring it, and the Forest Service claims it doesn’t have the people or budget to do that,” Barrett said.
Unlike Grinnell, who only wants the county to accept the road for signage, towing and ticketing purposes, Barrett wants the county to also maintain it, especially in the winter. If that isn’t possible, Barrett said the county could install a gate at the base of Sawmill Gulch Road and only give access to residents when snow is on the ground.
People who want to recreate there in the winter could park in the Rattlesnake National Recreational Area, he added, and hike, bike or ski the extra mile along a path that parallels the road.
“It’s an important resource for the county to have people recreate up the Rattlesnake, but recreation and access doesn’t equal convenience,” Barrett said. “Maybe one solution is to close it in the winter and have people walk in from the trailhead.”
Hart said installing a gate won’t go over well with the Forest Service, especially since the Sawmill Gulch Road leads to public lands. Forest Service representatives weren’t at Thursday’s meeting due to the federal government shutdown.
“What I have heard from them is they’re not interested in a gate at the bottom of the road,” Hart said. “They were concerned with the county designating it a county road and then putting up a gate. That wouldn’t be something acceptable to the local current Forest Service management.”
Bert Lindler, who recreates in the area and volunteers time pulling weeds there, said that perhaps a gate is the best solution. But he noted that recreationalists and the Forest Service need to be part of that discussion.
Yet Commissioner Dave Strohmaier said he believes counties are precluded by statute from blocking county roads with gates. He urged the residents not to get ahead of themselves with either the gate or road maintenance. Instead, he and the other commissioners agreed to contact the Forest Service once the furlough is finished and set a date to walk the property. They’ll re-open Thursday’s public hearing during their Feb. 28 meeting.
“By making this a county road, it would enable us at some point, should we desire, to take on the maintenance. But by no means is that guaranteed,” Strohmaier said. “We need to make it clear what the benefits are to making this a county road, apart from maintenance.”