More than 1,000 pairs of feet traverse the M Trail on Mount Sentinel every day during the summer and fall. But on a recent afternoon, only a handful of people crisscross the mountain on the way to the M. The weather has left the route a sloppy, muddy slide, so to keep my Chuck Taylors clean, I opt for sturdier footing in the grass alongside the trail.
“I need to correct your trail etiquette,” says Marilyn Marler, a botanist at the University of Montana and city councilmember. She directs me back to the mud.
Turns out that selfish—albeit unknowing—behavior like mine chews up the trail and erodes the mountainside. Some of the switchbacks are now wide enough to drive a truck around. The railroad ties installed to prevent such erosion sit exposed and, within a few years, they could slide away with the rest of the trail.
To combat the erosion, a number of groups intend to heal the popular hiking trail. Marler and retired UM professor Jon Bertsche are forming Friends of the M to promote stewardship. The group plans to raise funds, recruit volunteers for workdays and promote programs such as Lend a Leash, which is already underway for dog owners.
In addition to Friends of the M, a student guild of the Society of Ecological Restoration is leading a trail maintenance workshop on April 11, then a full workday on April 18.
“This group has identified the M Trail rehabilitation and prairie restoration along the M Trail as their main project,” Marler writes. “It will take years, but they have very specific goals for the fall.”
Also, a new Wildland Restoration major at UM could attract more students to work on the M in the future. As part of the major, students are required to design a conservation project, says Cara Nelson, who heads the program.
“The M to me is like a destination point,” Bertsche says. “I’m always amazed at the number of people who climb it in the summer, especially from out of state. I think it’s a pretty important resource for us to take care of.”