“Something has to be done” about Sawmill Gulch Road, John Barrett says. “The current situation isn’t safe or sustainable.”

Barrett is one of about a dozen property owners who rely on Sawmill Gulch Road to access their homes. The narrow, forested roadway hugs the boundary of Rattlesnake National Recreation Area, part of Lolo National Forest.

Currently, much of the road’s plowing and maintenance falls to residents. In recent years, they say, it’s become increasingly choked with outdoor recreationists and their cars, creating danger for drivers and hassles for them as they attempt to get in and out.

“When it’s winter and this thing becomes a chute … then there’s no way to get by,” Barrett reminded his neighbors, and a group of Missoula County Commissioners, employees and U.S. Forest Service staff.

They had gathered at the Rattlesnake Creek Trailhead Thursday morning to tour the road and discuss its problems, as well as a solution the homeowners have floated: have Missoula County take over Sawmill Gulch Road, thereby giving it the authority to tow and ticket illegally-parked cars.

The residents petitioned Missoula County to do so in December, and the county responded with a one-time plowing and road-widening. The commissioners will take up the issue at their April 11 meeting. But in the meantime, Commissioner Cola Rowley questioned the county’s capacity to help.

“Towing people is not a high priority” for the county, she said. Additionally, she predicted that “us maintaining it isn’t going to be a whole lot better than what you get now.”

“Adding a big problem road is a big strain on the budget,” Rowley continued. She encouraged residents to “think more broadly …. Is the county taking it over really going to solve this?”

Commissioner Dave Strohmaier concurred. “What we’re trying to ascertain is …. will this becoming a county road help?” Josh Slotnick asked them, “Ownership of the road aside, what do you believe there should be?”

Steve Grinnell was quick to request more parking regulation. To which Barrett added a request for more signage, “a crystal-clear narrative somewhere that lets people know that Forest Service access is not accessible in winter.”

Already, the residents agreed, the county’s plowing and widening of the road last month had greatly improved accessibility. At their April 11 meeting, the commissioners will discuss whether to maintain their commitment.

At Thursday’s meeting and tour, they and residents discussed possible compromises. Rowley suggested a cost-sharing arrangement; Barrett suggested shifting resources away from less-trafficked roads to this one. “You’re going to piss those people off, but you’ll make us happy,” he said, drawing laughs.

In seriousness, the 10-year resident said he was “truly optimistic” about the situation.

“I think this group understands it’s a problem looking for a solution.”

The commissioners will meet at 2 p.m. Thursday, April 11, in the Sophie Moiese room of the Courthouse Annex.

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