Nearly five years ago, 30 volunteers came forward to help decide how to turn the contaminated Milltown Reservoir site into a public park.
They thought they would be done in a half-dozen meetings.
Instead, it's taken more than 50 meetings, thousands of hours of labor, some bitter debate and many late nights.
Now, the Milltown Redevelopment Working Group is ready to decide what to do with the Superfund site after it's been cleaned up.
"It's an exciting time but a little overwhelming, too," said Peter Nielsen, Missoula County's environmental health supervisor. "We've been dreaming big, but now it's time to get realistic."
The working group, which held its final public meeting Monday, intends to select a final plan at its Nov. 27 meeting.
The committee will choose from among hundreds of suggestions for creating a state park at the confluence of the Clark Fork and Blackfoot rivers.
The 500-acre site has been contaminated by a century of toxic mining wastes, but the worst of the sediments and the dam are being removed and the rivers restored to naturally functioning ecosystems.
"This is one of the biggest environmental success stories the nation has ever seen," said Gary Weiner, a resource management specialist for the National Park Service.
The final redevelopment plan will combine many ideas from the public, ranging from an interpretive center to a network of nature trails.
But a number of questions remain, including how much the project will cost, where funding will come from, how many years it will take to create and how the site will be managed.
The working group has raised nearly $5 million so far from the federal Department of Transportation, the Environmental Protection Agency and the state Natural Resources Damage program and other sources.
The committee intends to forward its final plan recommendation by January to the Missoula County Commission, which has helped lead the redevelopment effort, and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, which likely will manage the site as a state park.
A nonprofit group might be created to help manage the site, said Mike Kustudia, a working group member.
The FWP will then come up with cost estimates for the project.
The cleanup and restoration of the rivers will cost an estimated $110 million, but that doesn't include redeveloping the site.
The estimated cost for a conceptual redevelopment plan approved in 2005 was $14 million, but officials said a new cost can't be determined until a specific plan is selected.
The cost will depend on many factors, such as whether the final plan emphasizes "high-impact" amenities such as an interpretive center and amphitheater or "low-impact" features, including bike racks, benches and simple footpaths.
The final plan that's approved probably will include many of the low-impact amenities because they are less expensive, but other more costly features could be added later depending on public sentiment and available funding, Kustudia said.
Once a final redevelopment plan is approved, the FWP Foundation, a private nonprofit group, will work with the working group to create a fundraising campaign.
The campaign will seek money from Congress, state grants, corporations, private foundations and individual donors.
The working group debated the potential of three different areas: the rivers' confluence near the site of dam, the reservoir area and the gateway to Milltown near the pedestrian bridge.
Most of the cleanup area is owned by NorthWestern Energy. The state has the right of first refusal when the cleanup of mining wastes just above Milltown Dam is completed and the dam removed.
As part of the project, Plum Creek Timber Co. last week donated 6.5 acres off Deer Creek Road that includes the bluff overlooking the dam.
The EPA has budgeted $175,000 to pay for amenities on the site, such as a parking lot, fence, guardrail and kiosk to allow public viewing of the reservoir cleanup. Work on a bluff park could begin this fall.
Lee Bastian, FWP's Region 2 parks manager, said the state has not decided whether to take over ownership and management of the site.
"But we've been very involved from the start and we do manage a lot of similar properties, so we have that expertise and it's a natural fit," he said.
Bastian said funding and managing the site remains the major question.
"It always takes more money than people imagine," he said.
Officials said they were confident the redevelopment plan won't sit on a shelf.
"I think the public would be very disappointed if this doesn't materialize," Bastian said.
George Bettas, development director for the FWP Foundation, said a final plan is needed before a fundraising campaign can be created.
"This is a wonderful project, the kind that will have a great deal of benefit for the community," he said.
For more information, go to www.cfrtac.org.
Reporter John Cramer can be reached at 523-5259 or at JohnCramer@missoulian.com.
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