Since opening in 1998, Blacktail Mountain Ski Area has more than doubled its average crowds. General Manager Steve Spencer estimates the hill had 40,000 skier visits last season. When you factor in the hikers, bikers, ATV riders and logging trucks frequenting the area during other seasons, he says, it's not hard to see why the Flathead National Forest is working to pave the dusty, bumpy, 12-mile Blacktail Mountain Road.
"It's a great area for multiple use," Spencer says, "and a paved road would improve the access for those people who are going up there to hike the trails and pick the huckleberries and go hunting."
The Flathead National Forest is now waiting for $1.1 million in federal grant money to drop so it can get started on the first 1.75 miles of that paving project this year. While it may sound like a modest start, staff officer Gary Danczyk is quick to point out that the forest also received $300,000 for design and planning of a second phase of paving to extend asphalt all the way to the forest boundary.
The projects go a long way in addressing dust cloud complaints residents along the road have voiced for years. "One of the reasons that we are attempting to pave that lower section of road is to specifically address dust abatement," Danczyk says. Asphalt has also gained the approval of the Federal Aviation Administration and local emergency services in light of critical radar and communications infrastructure on Blacktail's summit.
Paving the road inside the forest itself is a costlier and more sensitive issue. Groups including the Lakeside-Somers Chamber of Commerce and the North Shore Nordic Club have stated strong support for improving as much of the road as possible, but Danczyk says there are other potential impacts to consider.
"There's a lot of folks that make good and strong arguments to pave to the top, but there's a significant portion of the public that is concerned about the impact on the traditional experience that that gravel road enables," Danczyk says. "We're trying to find that balance."
For Spencer, at least, the benefit of paving the whole road is obvious. Expansion of recreational opportunitiesincluding development of the Foy's to Blacktail multi-use trailhas already been a boon for local communities like Lakeside. "This is the public's land," Spencer says, "and the public should be encouraged to use it."