LOLO – A save-the-tree campaign to keep a giant weeping willow along U.S. Highway 93 from being chopped down for a bike trail just went past-tense.
The tree is saved.
Missoula County public works director Greg Robertson said Friday the Missoula-to-Lolo trail across Lolo Flats will be redesigned to avoid the landmark tree.
“It’s in the right of way, and the trail width and configuration is occupying quite a bit of space, but we’ve redesigned around it so the bulk of the trail won’t interfere,” Robertson said. “We will have to do some trimming to permit trucks to pass by it during construction.”
That comes as good news to the unknown people who’ve strung signs around the willow in the past few weeks. They read “Don’t cut me down,” “I am worth saving,” “Please save me” and “Green leaves matter.”
“It’s managed to survive the highway, the railroad, fire. … As far as I know it’s never been hit by a car,” said Gary Haas of Florence. “It’s quite a tree.”
Haas, a landscaper and retired forester, has lived in the Bitterroot Valley for 31 years. He thinks the tree is over 100 years old, which means it was planted long before an asphalt highway was built nearby – and possibly before the Bitterroot Railroad was built in 1887.
It would be a shame, Haas said, for a bike path to cause its demise.
Today the willow’s branches hang over the shoulder of a very busy four-lane Highway 93.
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“It’s one of the only willows I know of that big, and one of the only ones I know of in the valley, though there’s got to be other willows somewhere,” Haas said.
Greg Lazerte, engineering survey supervisor for the county, was at the tree Friday shooting lines for the reroute.
“We’ve got plenty of room,” he said. “Generally you try to keep it away from the travel lane as much as possible, but in this case it’s kind of hard to do that.”
Lazerte said the Lolo Flats stretch won’t be built until next spring.
Work began in mid-April farther north on the first stages of what will be a paved bike trail connecting Missoula to Hamilton. The segment from Lolo south is already in use.
Robertson said Western Excavating is making good progress on the segment on the northwest side of the highway between Buckhouse Bridge and Blue Mountain Road. It should be paved and opened by the end of the summer.
The trail will cross over to the east side of Highway 93 at Blue Mountain Road. Earth movers and haulers have leveled several stretches of grade between the highway and Montana Rail Link tracks. Much of that part of the trail will be below the brow of the highway.
Temporary signal lights at the old Lolo weigh station are in place to stop traffic for trucks weekdays between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. for the next several weeks.