Court documents show the Missoula City-County Health Department (MCCHD) issued a notice to MDT as the owner of the property under Reserve Street back in 2020.
The notice urged MDT to "address the garbage and human waste present in the riverbed," and threatened MDT with potential fines and penalties if the waste was not abated in a timely manner."
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MDT officials say they're working with county officials and the Missoula County Sheriff's Office to remove illegal trespassers and secure the area before doing a more extensive cleanup. MDT District Administrator Bob Vosen also said part of the reason for the lawsuit was to seek clarification on what action law enforcement can take in removing people.
“They haven’t felt comfortable, with a clear understanding of what they can do. That’s part of the legal documents that MDT has filed, is to try to get clarification on what the Sheriff’s Department can do, and what that can look like," Vosen explained.
While MDT officials consider the legality of the issue, volunteers say the cleanup of the Clark Fork River is vital, especially as people experiencing homelessness return to the area under the Reserve Street Bridge.
About 50 volunteers gathered on this Earth Day to clean up the area, with one calling it an "unsustainable and unhealthy cycle." Neighbors say they've found needles near their homes, and prevent their kids from playing in the street.
"Having a two-year-old, I want to be able to play with my kid in the street, and I don't feel like I can do that confidently when there's needles across the street from my house," said homeowner Ty Tenderich who lives about three blocks from the Clark Fork River.
Organizer Kevin Davis said the cleanups are temporary solutions, but he, and others in the area, are hoping for a cleaner future, with better access, "if we shift gears to restoration, we could turn this area into one of the nicest river access areas in Missoula."
Tenderich says he would love to be able to access the land with his family, saying, "I can't enjoy the natural resource that we have."
The land is public and is owned by the Montana Department of Transportation, "MDT's biggest concern always has been and always will be the protection of the infrastructure," Vosen said.
He added there is a lot of work that needs to be done before the area can truly be turned over for public use, "at this point, we're a little premature to even be talking about things like that. We need to get past the challenge in front of us right now first," Vosen stated.
As wildlife returns to the area, and water levels begin to rise, the no trespassing signs will stay up.
"I understand that they're trying to put a plan, and they don't necessarily want to displace these people, but what we're doing now is not working," Tenderich said.
"We don't mind coming down here picking up trash, but it's gotta be towards a long-term plan, and effort, community effort," Davis said. "Something that works for the greater Missoula area."
Vosen said MDT will continue to work to secure the area.