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Breaking big tasks into little chunks works, whether on an exercise track or an exercise in land management.

“Would you rather tell a kid in tonight’s practice we’re going to ski 10 kilometers, or ski two kilometers and shoot five shots five times?” said Ben Scott, a Libby dentist and organizer of the community’s biathlon cross-country ski program. “That’s an easier sell to a kid.”

Linking one recreation possibility to another has also become an economic development initiative for Lincoln County residents. Turning a cross-country ski trail into a winter target-shooting experience has helped Libby grow its Nordic ski club to almost 150 members. The cross-country ski trail about a mile outside Libby is developing a visitor center that will illuminate many other ways to enjoy the surrounding landscape. Leveraging that interest in outdoor recreation has fed into a new adopt-a-trail initiative that aims at providing year-round opportunities for folks in northwest Montana.

“It’s finally getting critical mass,” said Phil Hough of Friends of Scotchman Peaks, a wilderness promotion organization. “The biathlon track is already in play. It needs a parking structure, but you can go out and ski and shoot now. Some other trail-building could take five to 10 years.”

The Libby Chamber of Commerce and the Kootenai Outdoor Recreation Association started the “Adopt a Trail Description” program to provide high quality trail descriptions and maps for the trails around Libby. The trail descriptions will eventually be published on the Kootenai National Forest Recreation Site in a format that users can easily download and print.

Much of the inspiration came from a mapping project the Cabinet Backcountry Horsemen's group started 10 years ago to catalog all the available destinations surrounding Libby. When the community started developing a master recreation trails plan in 2017, it asked local volunteers to ground-truth the old maps and see what needed updating, maintenance or adjustment. The result was about half a dozen future projects in need of support.

Volunteers first need to try out the trails, update the photos, GPS any changes and post descriptions to a coming recreation opportunity guide. Participants have until Sept. 15 to get the details turned in.

Libby’s biathlon track now has 12 target points and a paved, year-round training circuit. Scott said one goal is to help a visitor hop from one opportunity to another and another as the network expands. For example, the Snowshoe Road trail would provide both Nordic skiing and summer biking potential.

“It’s actually the first deeded road in the original Missoula County back in 1892,” Scott said of Snowshoe. “It’s six miles long, graveled and takes you to the Leigh Lake Trailhead, which is the most popular trailhead into the Cabinet Wilderness. You literally bop along the face of the Cabinets. It’s a tremendous connector.”

Missoula County once covered most of northwest Montana before it was broken up into smaller administrative districts. Libby now forms the seat of Lincoln County, and County Commissioner Mark Peck has seen growing interest in the scenery surrounding “this tough little mountain town.”

“We’re not interested in becoming Moab, Utah,” Peck said. “Our number-one goal is to create a community that has a lot to offer young entrepreneurs who can jump on an ATV, mountain bike or whatever it is they do, and get to the most fantastic scenery on the planet without 10,000 other people around.”

The initiative has people looking all directions out of Libby. At least 130 trails radiate out of the Libby Ranger District, and the project hopes to identify about 20 high-priority paths to improve in its first phase. The Cedar Creek trail west of town, potential mountain bike routes to the north, and the old Snowshoe Road to the south all have projects underway.

Both Lincoln County and Libby city governments have supported the trails projects. Scott said the county helped move about 70,000 cubic yards of soil to finish the biathlon circuit so it could be paved for year-round training use.

“It’s saving hundreds of thousands of dollars if we had to contract this out,” Scott said. “Our clubs come up with grant money for building, or oil for paving, and then the county uses their crews to do the ground work. It’s a partnership.”

Peck said maintaining Libby’s character as a place with good jobs and opportunities to enjoy the outdoors was the driving force attracting partners to the project. The surrounding Kootenai National Forest has 2.2 million acres of public land, with roughly 780,000 acres considered suitable for timber harvest. It also has the Cabinet Mountain Wilderness, the Kootenai and Yaak rivers, and several recommended wilderness areas or wilderness study areas.

“The bottom line is most of us snowmobile and mountain bike and hike in the Cabinet Wilderness area,” Peck said. “We can do it all here in a way that respects all the different disciplines.”

While the region has a long history of lawsuits, protests and feuds over land use, Peck said this initiative has the potential to smooth over those old arguments. Doing a thorough classification of the surrounding land and its attributes will help everyone find a balance between scientific, economic and social needs.

“Personally I really get upset when I continually see the pitting wilderness against management as things that are mutually exclusive against one another,” Peck said. “It’s time to think bigger and get out of childish arguments. Nobody’s winning under that old model. That’s what’s so neat about Lincoln County. We’d like to see this corner of the state be a model for that.”

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.