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Groups discuss plans for rail-trail project

by MONTE TURNER
Mineral Independent | November 16, 2022 12:00 AM

When the Great American Rail-Trail construction is completed, it will connect the U.S. coasts from Washington D.C. to Washington State, a distance of 3,700 miles.

It’s a tremendous work in progress with local residents pushing the needle in finalizing the route in their area, taking bites out of the elephant at an impressive pace. Mineral County is well underway with various stages of completion, including the Trail of the Olympia that runs from St. Regis to Haugan.

On Oct. 28 Kevin Belanger, project manager of the Rails-to-Conservancy met with the Mineral County Rails-to-Trails group to visit the completed portion and to talk about other potential routes for the trail as it comes through the county.

It is following the old Milwaukee Railroad grade as much as possible and finding ways around those pieces of the road that have been sold into private hands.

Belanger’s tour actually started in Frenchtown, where a piece of Missoula County’s trail system was examined that would eventually connect with the trail into Mineral County. The group then progressed on through Mineral County, following I-90 from Alberton to the Cyr exit to access the old U.S. 10 which cyclists can currently ride to Crystal Springs, but then it’s a return to the freeway.

Diane Magone, chair of the recreation committee of the Mineral County Resource Committee, has been energized with the progress they have made and confident of the challenges they face, especially the key portion being negotiated between Alberton and Tarkio.

“We are in talks Amy Helena (Department of Natural Resources-Missoula Unit Manager) to obtain a land use permit allowing bikers and hikers to continue on across a section of school trust land for future use," Magone said. "This will allow for all three critically narrow I-90 freeway bridges to be avoided by non-motorized traffic. Once this is done a route from Cyr all the way to Superior would provide a much safer alternative for these visitors to our county."

At noon, the group met with the Mineral County Commissioners in an open meeting format. Magone provided a brief explanation about the role of the Mineral County Rails-to-Trails organization including the accomplishments and next phase of the Recreation Committee. Kevin Belanger presented the findings of an Economic Benefit Study, commissioned by the Conservancy and prepared by Headwaters Economics that pertained specifically to Mineral County and then answered any questions about the proposed trail project as well as the Conservancy in general.

The afternoon portion included a stop at the proposed site of the Route of the Olympian trailhead to be built on the Forest Service compound adjacent to the St. Regis Community Park. Followed by a trip on up the canyon to Saltese where Brooke Lincoln, with the Montana Nightriders Snowmobile Club, discussed the Saltese Trestle project which will eventually be a necessary connecting-piece on the Great American Rail-Trail.

Although much of the trail will be nonmotorized, Belanger made it clear that it is up to local entities to allow multi-use when appropriate. The Route of the Olympian and the Saltese Trestle are open to certain types of motorized vehicles and will remain to be so in the future, while the portion of the trail that goes through the DNRC section.

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