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Missoula County to consider fate of ‘lost’ 19th-century wagon trail

Posted at 9:05 AM, Sep 02, 2022
and last updated 2022-09-02 11:05:06-04

MISSOULA - The debate over a 150-year-old wagon road that has been “lost” for more than a century resurfaced this week as Missoula County moves closer to considering whether it will vacate the alleged road once and for all or reinvent it to allow public access across private land to the Bitterroot River.

The road was established as a trail between Stevensville and Missoula as early as the 1860s but — as some contend — it was never recorded as an official road.

Others say it was recorded, however, and state law prohibits the county from abandoning the road unless it can provide “substantially” the same access to the same relative location on the river.

“This easement was purchased at taxpayer expense and belongs to the citizens of Missoula County,” said Larry Evans. “Montana (law) states that the (county) may not abandon a county road or right of way used to provide existing legal access to public lands and water unless another public road or right of way provides substantially the same access.”

Evans supports the petition signed by a handful of Miller Creek residents looking to access the Bitterroot River in Lower Miller Creek via the old road. The road leads to several parcels of land held by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks at the water's edge.

But doing so would require the county to punch access to the location across private land, along with two conservation easements established by the Five Valleys Land Trust, and it has pitted a number of property owners against the request.

A parallel petition signed by area landowners and ranchers is asking the county to vacate the rumored road once and for all and put the debate to rest.

“We know for a fact, for the past 26 years, this unused road the county 'located' has had zero members of the public using it,” said Bart Morris, owner of the Oxbow Cattle Co. “One could argue the public hasn't used this road for 150 years.”

Morris said that if the county reestablished the trail as a road, it would have grave impacts to his cattle operation. It is one of the only working cattle ranches in the Missoula Valley and it has carved out a niche in the grassy floodplain south of the Bitterroot River.

Oxbow's cattle are grass-fed and the beef is distributed locally and prized by restaurants.

“A new road through our place to access the FWP parcels has way more negative impacts to the community than positive,” said Morris, who said the parcels are rich with wildlife and unspoiled riparian habitat. “Abandoning this unused and unidentifiable road once and for all would be a win for the community and would preserve this part of the Bitterroot for the wildlife, livestock and public that use it. Sometimes the best we can do for a place is to leave it alone.”

Morris isn't alone in his concerns and is backed by a number of other landowners and long-time residents, including Elizabeth Maclay. She believes the road, if brought back into service, would be devastating to the Oxbow Ranch.

“The oxbow ranch has been successful in blending ranching, conservation, ecology and economy,” said Maclay. “I'd hate to see them fail in this community. This request is just greed, envy and a lack of understanding of what ranching is about.”

The Old Trail

According to the county, the historic wagon trail has been known as the Bitterroot Trail, the Missoula-Skalkaho Road, and the Missoula to Stevensville Road. It was petitioned in 1867 and the survey was allegedly accepted by the county in 1868.

But the survey also notes that the road lies in an area subject to flooding. It also says the road got little public use after 1874. The location of the road “can only be determined from an interpretation of the terrain, oral testimony, written evidence, and historical use of the area.”

“You've had 150 years of sedimentation on top of this floodplain which is undisturbed,” said Tom Ahlbrandt. “How you'd find a road 150 years later – I don't see evidence of a road. This is disrupting to the landowners in the area. It's an imaginary road that cannot be found.”

Others believe that the county – and those looking to reestablish the road – don't have sufficient evidence to suggest that a county road every existed at the location.

They have also said that in the event of litigation, the county would not succeed in arguing that a county road was ever established “in the 19th century or ever since.”

“The Bitterroot Road is essentially a lost road that was used very rarely back in the day,” said Ryan Salisbury. “There was never a bridge built to cross the river. It means this road could only be used when the river levels were low enough to cross by wagon. Taking this lost road and moving it to the nearest most convenient location is wrong.”

County officials on Thursday said it was their intent to explore “anything that is remotely considered substantially the same” to provide access to the river while sparing any impacts to private land.

While supporters of the road argue that state law requires “substantially the same” access, others believe they are conflating the term.

Tom Bergeron said the Bitterroot River has nearly 25 public access points along its 80-mile journey to the Clark Fork River. A number of those access points sit close to the disputed location and could be considered “substantially the same.”

“We shouldn't look at the term 'substantially the same access' as meaning 'precisely the same access,'” Bergeron said. “We should look at it as being more-or-less the same, and there a number of more-or-less the same, perfectly usable public access sites close by on the Bitterroot River.”