City supports trail network north of town

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Depot Park and the Shay engine. Eventually, the park could make for a good trailhead for cyclists wanting to use a trail system north of Columbia Falls.

The City of Columbia Falls is backing a network of trails just north of town on Forest Service lands.

The city council Monday night approved a letter by Mayor Don Barnhart “that the proposal to improve the network of trails will provide much-needed recreational opportunities for citizens and visitors.”

In the letter, the city also said it’s lobbying state, local and federal officials to have the North Fork Road paved to Camas Creek.

“Paving this section would provide better connectivity and access to the Flathead National Forest, including the Crystal Cedar Project and Glacier National Park,” the letter states.

But paving the road has been debated by residents for decades. There are those that say it would reduce dust and make it safer, while others say it would be a detriment to wildlife and would make the North Fork even more crowded.

The Hungry Horse-Glacier View Ranger District last month released a plan that would create or improve about 24.5 miles of bicycle, pedestrian and horse trails in the Cedar Lake-Crystal Creek area north of Columbia Falls. The plan doesn’t include paving the North Fork Road.

Called the Crystal Cedar project, it also proposes logging commercial thinning on about 2,600 acres of land in several units. Many of the units are off the Crystal Creek and Canyon Creek Roads, as well as off Rabe Road on the backside of Teakettle Mountain adjacent to private property.

The Forest Service held an open house and informational meeting on the project last week in Columbia Falls, which was generally met with a positive response from the public.

The city has been working on bike paths within the city limits for several years.

The hope is to one day have a “trailhead” at the end of Nucleus Avenue. From there, it’s about an eight-minute bike ride to the end of Fourth Avenue to the first Forest Service trailhead,

The idea is to put bike lanes along the road to make it more bike-friendly. The Gateway to Glacier Trail Group has been working on the project. President Jeremiah Martin said the group wouldn’t start any formal work on trails until the Environmental Assessment of the project is completed — which is still a year away.

He noted there are, however, state and federal grants available for paths. Most of the proposed paths are multiple non-motorized use, which means they’ll be available for horse, human and bike traffic.

The group would likely start work at the south end of the network and work its way north, as the elevation rises. There are already some trails in the area.

The other half of the project looks to reduce the risk of wildfire.

“The goal is to bring the fire down (out of the canopy) so it’s more manageable,” project leader Sarah Canepa said.

The Forest Service will also look to increase the diversity of the forest, as it’s largely lodgepole currently. The last major fire in the area was in 1929. Since then, a host of private residences have been built near the woods.

The environmental assessment will come out later this winter, with a final decision expected by spring.

The open house was held to gather public opinion on the project and suggestions. Folks suggested a wide variety of things, from improving access to plowing snow at trailheads to make skier access easier.

In the higher terrain, the trail network affords great views of the Swan Range and the valley.

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