MISSOULA — More than 50 maintenance projects on Montana’s national forests have been selected to receive funding through the Great American Outdoors Act, including six on the Bitterroot National Forest and a dozen on the Lolo National Forest.
Last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released a list of more than 500 infrastructure projects selected nationwide to receive money from the Public Land Legacy Restoration Fund. The restoration fund is part of the Great American Outdoors Act passed in July, which provides up to $9.5 billion for public land maintenance over the next five years and fully funds the Land and Water Conservation Fund with $900 million annually.
The maintenance money comes from half of all revenues from oil, gas, coal, alternative, and renewable energy development on federal lands and waters, up to $1.9 billion a year.
The national parks receive a majority – 70% – of the maintenance money. But national forests should receive $285 million each year, and that’s what’s paying for the 500 projects announced last week, 10% of which is in Montana. Over the next five years, the Public Land Legacy Restoration Fund will hopefully go a long way toward reducing the Forest Service’s $5.2 billion maintenance backlog.
“Implementing these projects is a top priority for the upcoming summer season,” Lolo National Forest supervisor Carolyn Upton said in a release. “The projects are a mix of road, recreation facility, and infrastructure improvements that are located throughout the Forest. These improvements are critical to providing public service, access, and recreational opportunity, while also supporting the rural economies and communities that we serve.”
Along with five projects to repair and resurface roads, the Lolo NF will repair the Savenac visitor center and rental cabin near Superior; replace the tower support legs, concrete footings and stairs for the Double Arrow lookout near Seeley Lake; repair the water systems at recreation sites along Rock Creek and around Seeley Lake; and replace picnic benches forest-wide.
A big local project includes a variety of restoration and repair jobs at the Pattee Canyon and Blue Mountain park sites near Missoula. Local community groups and stewardship partners such as the Missoula Nordic Ski Club, Garden City Flyers, Montana Natural History Center, Missoula YMCA, Missoula Outdoor Learning Adventures, and Missoula Parks and Recreation will provide additional funding.
In 2019, Upton proposed the creation of user fees at Pattee Canyon and other Lolo recreation sites in order to raise money to pay for needed maintenance. For the past two decades, Congress continued to cut Forest Service appropriations and much maintenance went undone.
But, Missoulians pushed back during the comment period, which produced more than 300 comments. A year ago, Upton postponed the Pattee Canyon recreation fee, saying the area would be monitored and a fee could still go into effect if the area couldn’t be maintained. Now, this project money will go a long way toward keeping the area free to the public.
The Missoula Smoke Jumper Center also received money for a visitor center renovation that will update interpretive displays and upgrade the bathrooms and lighting.
The Bitterroot National Forest has two road surfacing projects, including the road leading to the St. Mary’s Peak trailhead, and a project to clear vegetation away from 100 miles of recreational roads. The other three projects involve mainly campground and trail maintenance, including improvements to wilderness and motorized trails.
The Lolo National Forest had the most projects funded in Montana with 12, while the Custer Gallatin followed with 11 projects. Priorities for project selection included reducing the maintenance backlog, improving visitor experience and access, contributions to rural economies, promoting national forest management, ensuring public health and safety, and bringing in partner relationships and resources.