Forest signs off on Whitefish trail project

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Construction of an extensive trail system that connects Whitefish with the upper reaches of the Whitefish Range has received final approval from the U.S. Forest Service.

The Flathead National Forest on Monday issued its final decision notice that found no significant impact for the long-discussed Taylor Hellroaring project.

The forest project includes 28 miles of new non-motorized trails that will link up with the established Whitefish Trail system on the north side of Whitefish, as well as the trails on Big Mountain.

The selected action also calls for a commercial timber harvest on nearly 1,000 acres, and forest fuel reduction work on another 1,000 acres. Timber harvest will be achieved using the Good Neighbor Authority with the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. The program allows the Forest Service to enter into agreements with the state for projects aimed at improving forest health and productivity.

Project implementation is expected to begin next summer.

Discussions about forest management and recreation in the project area began about six years ago when the collaborative Whitefish Face working group took up the issue. This group of citizens, recreationists and landowners submitted an initial proposal in 2015.

“It is a privilege to collaborate with local residents and nonprofit organizations to achieve significant recreation and wildfire preparedness goals,” said Flathead National Forest Supervisor Chip Weber in a media release. “Working alongside such dedicated partners, we are able to realize so much more together. We look forward to continuing those strong working relationships as we move forward to implement this project.”

The 28 miles of new trail will be open to both hikers and mountain bikers, with about 15 miles of the total system open to equestrians as well.

The longest stretch of new trail (8.3 miles) is called “Ridgeline” and will follow the crest of the Whitefish Range to the north beginning at the summit of Big Mountain. Other sections of trail climb the face of the mountain range in the Taylor and Hellroaring creek areas.

As part of the project, the existing Holbrook parking area on Big Mountain Road will be upgraded to a designated trailhead, with a vault toilet and information kiosk. Picnic tables, interpretive signs and a spotting scope could also be provided.

Whitefish Legacy Partners, the nonprofit group that oversees the Whitefish Trail system, will take the lead in construction of a critical 1.5-mile piece of trail starting at the Holbrook trailhead.

Legacy Partners Executive Director Heidi Van Everen said this portion of the Whitefish Trail and the project as a whole “has been a long time coming.”

“It allows the Whitefish Trail to connect to Forest Service [land] and take advantage of the front-country,” she said. “All 28 miles can connect back to this one trailhead that’s right there on Big Mountain Road.”

“We’re excited to have another piece of the puzzle to close the loop. We’re getting closer.”

In his decision notice, Weber said that the proposed trail network will offer recreation opportunities for a wide variety of users.

“For example, families or users with limited time would primarily use the lower elevation, shorter loops,” he noted. Trail runners, beginner and intermediate mountain bikers, and more adventurous hikers would likely head for the middle loops. Advanced mountain bikers would likely use the longer loops. Looping trails such as these often develop a preferred direction of travel, which further reduces user conflict and improves safety.”

The potential for conflict between wildlife and trail users recreating at high speed — namely mountain bikes — was a point of contention in the proposal.

Weber said the final plan addresses those concerns though trail designs. Switchbacks will be used to reduce speeds for bikers, and trails will avoid riparian areas and areas of dense berry-producing shrubs, where feasible. Brush will also be cleared to improve sight-lines. Information on how to recreate in bear country is to be included at trailheads as well.

The proposed timber harvest is intended to help create a more fire-resistant forest within the wildland-urban interface, Weber noted in his decision. Most of the forest in the area is lodgepole pine, Douglas fir, Engelmann spruce and subalpine fir. The project intends to establish more fire-resistant western larch, ponderosa pine, whitebark pine, and western white pine.

Commercial harvest activities will include clear cuts and thinning, using ground and skyline operations. About 500 acres of prescribed burning is planned as part of fuel reduction efforts.

The final decision can be found online at https://www.fs.usda.gov/project/?project=50518.

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