Laying tracks for Hiawatha 

For nearly two decades the Lolo National Forest (LNF) has purchased sections of old railroad grade along the I-90 corridor in hopes of building “The Hiawatha Rail Trail,” a non-interstate route linking Missoula with existing trail systems in Idaho’s Panhandle. One problem with the long-term plan is a number of privately owned sections smack dab in the middle of the route.

To skirt agency sluggishness, the LNF teamed up with Five Valleys Land Trust (FVLT) to help purchase this private land when it hits the market. That partnership paid off recently as the groups moved to secure a portion of the route stretching from Haugan to St. Regis.

“We can move a lot quicker than the agency in protecting private parcels that might go to another buyer,” says Glenn Marangelo, FVLT’s development director. “If we lose a couple key pieces here, we lose it all, and that could really create problems in the long run as far as seeing that vision unfold.”

The vision Marangelo speaks of would provide cyclists with a chance to ride from Missoula all the way to the Pacific Ocean via new land acquisitions with existing trail networks in Idaho and Washington. LNF says it’s unsure how long this interstate project could take to complete.

In the meantime, the newly purchased land in Montana means railroad grade used for decades as a road for all manner of vehicles may be limited to cycle traffic only to comply with the Hiawatha Rail Trail.

“And therein lies the problem,” says LNF’s Beth Kennedy. “The route is currently used as a single lane gravel road, so we will have to go to the public with this question: ‘How should we manage it? Does it stay a gravel road? Should it be bikes only or should any vehicle be legal?’”

No formal comment period has been set, but Kennedy anticipates input to start coming in soon. She can be reached at LNF c/o Beth Kennedy, PO Box 460, Superior MT 59872.

“Truly, I totally throw this out to the public,” Kennedy says. “You guys figure out how we should manage this. Do we keep mixed traffic with a phenomenally low speed? Or does it become a seasonal use trail? We have no agenda.”
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