In this season of giving, a group of residents up Rattlesnake Drive has an unusual gift for Missoula County: Sawmill Gulch Road.
To access their homes, 10 families currently rely on Sawmill Gulch Road, which begins near the trailhead parking lot for the Rattlesnake National Recreation Area. However, the private narrow roadway, which runs along the north side of a steep hillside, is becoming more crowded with the ever-increasing number of recreational users.
It gets even worse in winter, when the thaw/freeze cycle turns the road into an ice rink, notes resident Steve Grinnell, who said drivers slide off the road into the deep ditches or get stuck and block the road for hours.
“It’s a challenging road,” Grinnell said. “Everyone here thinks (the public lands) are a treasure, a resource of remarkable beauty, but there are public safety concerns. If there was an emergency, somebody couldn’t get up or down the road at times.”
Grinnell said area residents don’t want to close off access, and they’re happy people are out recreating on the nearby U.S. Forest Service lands. However, they want the county to have the ability to impose and enforce reasonable parking regulations and restrictions, as well as speed limits, which the county says it only can do on a road it owns.
“We’re not looking to limit anybody’s access or inhibit anybody’s ability to get to the trailheads,” Grinnell said. “It’s just that people don’t know when they start out on the road that they might not be able to get to their destination if they have an ill-equipped vehicle. You need all-wheel drive and good winter tires.”
In a petition to the county, the Sawmill Gulch Road residents note that while it isn’t a county road, it’s used by the public and was maintained and controlled by Missoula County before the Forest Service acquired land there beginning in 1983. Today, the route is used not just by vehicles, but hikers, bikers, skiers, inline skaters and skateboards and longboarders.
“It’s an issue in all the seasons,” Grinnell said. “There are people who drive too fast, people on inline skates or skis going around blind corners. We don’t want to restrict that but let people know they have to be reasonably careful.”
The landowners plow snow off Sawmill Gulch Road until the intersection with Russian Joe Road, which is where recreational users often get stuck trying to turn around and block passage up and down Russian Joe Road.
“The volume of traffic, the narrow roadway, the blind turns and the recklessness of certain users all contribute to create very real dangers in any season,” the petition states.
The petitioners don’t want the partially paved 14-foot-wide road to be expanded to the 60-foot-wide county standard, since that would be inconsistent with the nearby wilderness. They’re also not asking the county to plow or maintain the road.
They just want the county to have the authority it says it doesn’t currently have to regulate parking and speeding.
“We want them to have the ability to manage the road for all the folks who use it. What that includes remains to be seen,” Grinnell said. “We’re hoping for signage at the beginning of the road that says in a visible and clear way that it isn’t maintained by the county, and that there will not be parking along the road since it gets so narrow that two cars can’t get by each other in some places.”
Deputy County Attorney John Hart said that in the four years he’s been on the job, the county has been petitioned about half a dozen times about accepting roads, but declined to do so because of the maintenance costs. He’s not sure what the commissioners will do with this petition.
The first public hearing on the petition is set for 2 p.m. Thursday. One of the commissioners then has to make a site visit, and a second public hearing will be set after that.
“I’d be shocked if they accept it, then add it to the miles of road that the county maintains, like plowing in the winter or filling potholes in the summer,” Hart said.
But the county may accept the road without having to perform maintenance. If that happens, the county commission then has jurisdiction to set up parking restrictions that can be enforced. The commission previously has instituted parking restrictions in some places, including near the Kona and Maclay bridges.
One potential glitch involves the U.S. Forest Service, which owns land generally on the north side of Sawmill Gulch. While the Forest Service consented in general principle to establishing this segment of Sawmill Gulch as a county road, the federal government’s shutdown means that no representative will be available to make formal public comments on the petition, Hart said.
Giving up its share of the roadway means this would encumber public lands, which also could be an issue.
“It’s definitely more complicated when we’re dealing with the federal government, but the Forest Service and Lolo Ranger District are aware of some of the problems happening there with winter recreation,” Hart said. “There’s been discussion with the commissioners, the district ranger and some other recreation staff about what, if anything, they can do about this situation, knowing that the public has the right to access public lands in the Rattlesnake Recreation Area.”
The petition can be read by following the links on the Missoula County website.