The overhauled West Broadway Island officially opened Friday, adding accessible riverfront natural areas to Missoula’s urban core. The project, funded by the Missoula Redevelopment Agency, aimed to simultaneously open up the area to the general public and decrease the amount of illegal camping by people seeking shelter there.

A new bridge near the east end of the Imagine Nation Brewing Company parking lot anchored the project, and a restoration of the existing bridge at the end of Burton Street created a second access point, which is wheelchair-accessible. The new bridge includes a stair set that can be raised when the island floods in the spring.

The overhaul included ongoing restoration work to the riparian zone, which includes clearing non-native trees and plants in favor of the native black cottonwoods and various grasses.

A packed gravel trail connects the two bridges, with multiple improvised trails on flood-worn channels leading to naturally occurring sandy beaches along the river.

Morgan Valliant, Missoula Parks and Recreation’s conservation lands manager, said opening up the island and restoring its native species was a special opportunity for Missoula.

“It’s really rare that we have the opportunity to actually open up a new natural area in the heart of Missoula,” Valliant said. “Obviously there’s been a lot of development, this is where we all live, this is where we all work, but the opportunity to have a spot where people can come down and connect with nature and see the river is rare.”

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Valliant noted that the island area is different from riverfront access along much of the river trail through the urban core because it isn’t engineered to control the river, but rather is allowed to be shaped and changed with the natural course of the river.

Chris Behan, assistant MRA director, said Missoula Police Department was crucial in helping push the project through. He said Chief Mike Brady told the MRA there was no way the department could singlehandedly stop the island from being used as a campsite for people experiencing homelessness.

The total cost of the project was about $800,000, split between construction and planning. The funding comes from urban renewal district money, which is collected as a portion of the property taxes within the district.

Valliant said the island’s proximity to the Poverello Center didn’t concern him, in terms of maintaining the park as an accessible and family-friendly natural area.

“Homelessness is a societal issue that we need to deal with as a city, but that’s not going to stop us from opening new parks and new natural areas,” Valliant said. “We have a system of natural spaces in town that make it a cool place to live. It also makes for great in-town camping. But it is what it is, and we’ll still continue to open great parks for the public use, and we find that when you do have good public access, and people start to use it, some of those issues are resolved.”

The area is a hotbed for birding, with ducks, geese and osprey flying around the area Friday morning, and Valliant said he hoped the park would be used by Missoula schools and University of Montana researchers for studying birds and riparian zones in urban centers.

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