Missoula County endorses FWP plan to expand Travelers’ Rest State Park

Tony Incashola offers a Native American prayer during the opening of the Missoula to Lolo Trail at Travelers’ Rest State Park in July 2016. (Photo by Martin Kidston)

When the Missoula to Lolo Trail opened two summers ago, hundreds of cyclists gathered at Travelers’ Rest State Park to celebrate the new byway and the area’s rich history.

It served as a crossroads for Native Americans dating back 10,000 years, and it remains the only archaeologically verified campsite of Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery.

Now, Travelers’ Rest is looking to expand.

Missoula County on Wednesday placed its official backing behind a proposal by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks to purchase a 20-acre parcel located just west of Travelers’ Rest on Highway 12.

Aided by potential funding from the Montana Fish and Wildlife Conservation Trust, the acquisition would enable FWP to expand the park for additional uses while improving flows in Lolo Creek using the property’s water rights.

“This would allow Travelers’ Rest State Park to grow its services to the community – to the state,” said Lisa Moisey, the county’s parks and trails program manager. “Because it’s a national and sometimes international destination, it would allow them to offer enhanced services and be able to the tell the story of the region in a much more significant way.”

Travelers’ Rest currently covers 65 acres and includes a half-mile stretch of Lolo Creek, including 24 acres of rare riparian woodlands. The park is designated as a National Historic Landmark and includes a museum and visitor center.

Given its history and attractions, the park provides an economic benefit to both the state and the community of Lolo, attracting 20,000 out-of-state visitors each year.

Expanding the park to the adjacent parcel would enhance its offerings, and doing so won easy support from Missoula County.

“It’s a great piece of land,” said Commissioner Cola Rowley. “People in Lolo don’t even know that’s not part of Travelers’ Rest, or that it’s a developable property. It’s a great acquisition to keep the whole park open and provide a lot more space.”

The proposed acquisition would enable the park to expand its trail system, offering additional outdoor recreation. Two years ago, the park attracted hundreds of cyclists from around the world during the christening of the Missoula to Lolo Trail.

Commissioners said the expansion could also bring the idea of a bicycle camp to reality.

“Our understanding is that’s all still on the table, as well as improving the adjacent riparian area,” said Pat O’Herron, the county’s chief planning officer. “There are also water rights associated with this that could go to enhance the stream flow.”

The adjacent property comes with water rights that could be used to rejuvenate Lolo Creek during summer months. And that, the county believes, could aid in efforts to restore stream habitat for the tributary’s native fish population.

“The entire 2.5 acre-feet water right acquired along with the property would be used to help improve flows and reduce impacts to westslope cutthroat trout and bull trout in Lolo Creek, one of the most important tributaries of the Bitterroot River,” the county wrote. “We support this acquisition, as it will benefit Missoula County residents and will support recreational opportunities and natural resource conservation.”

Moisey said the Montana Fish and Wildlife Conservation Trust was established in 1998 and is funded from proceeds from cabin sites on Canyon Ferry Reservoir, located east of Helena. The trust aims to provide a permanent source of funding for the acquisition of publicly accessible land in Montana.

“This funding is about half the cost of the property,” said Moisey. “It’s my understanding that state parks has the other half lined up. If they (FWP) received this, it would allow them to move forward with the acquisition.”