Great Amercian Rail-Trail

The city of Three Forks’ pivotal role in the development of a cross-country recreational trail was recognized nationally last week in conjunction with the unveiling of the 3,700-mile preferred route for the “safe, scenic and seamless pathway” that will stretch from Washington, D.C. to Seattle.

Present at the May 8 event were representatives of the Rails to Trails Conservancy, the organization spearheading the national effort to “provide safe, nonmotorized travel on a route that is entirely walkable and bikeable,” according to its website.

Three Forks’ celebration was featured by the conservancy in a nationwide webcast, along with similar fetes in Seattle, Columbus, Ohio, and Washington, D.C.

Despite the tremendous disparities between the four venues, none of the larger cities matched the turnout or enthusiasm of the Three Forks event, according to Gene Townsend, a member of the Three Forks City Council and force behind the 20-year development of the Headwaters Trail System, which will become part of the national rail trail.

Townsend said over 100 people turned out for the party, which was held at the former Northern Pacific depot currently under renovation in Three Forks. He noted that the recognition bestowed upon Three Forks was particularly appropriate because the Headwaters Trail system follows the Old Milwaukee road, and much of the cross-country trail also follows existing railroad corridors.

Three Forks played up the railroad theme, fashioning the event after an old-fashioned “whistle stop.” Speakers addressed the crowd from the back of a Milwaukee caboose, and attendees enjoyed a cookout and homemade cookies.

The focus was not only on the successful development of the Headwaters Trail System, which began in 1997, but also on how the system will connect with other trails that are yet to be constructed. According to the Rails to Trails Conservancy, 52 percent of the nationwide route is complete, and the most gaps exist in Montana and Wyoming.

“When we were starting out, we knew it would be pretty difficult to get through the mountain West, and we visited out here and had a lot of meetings with people,” said Kevin Belanger, a D.C.-based conservancy representative, as he addressed the local crowd. Belanger said his organization owes a “major thank you” to Montana for its commitment to outdoor recreation and to trails.

Stakeholders from various recreational organizations, the state of Montana, and local municipalities also were invited. Penelope Pierce, executive director of the Gallatin Valley Land Trust, was asked to speak.

Pierce explained to those assembled that the GVLT has been working for 30 years to develop the “Main Street to the Mountains” trail system, which connects downtown Bozeman to the Bridger and Gallatin mountain ranges via a contiguous, recreational path.

She said that the conservancy’s project will enable GVLT to further its vision by connecting with other communities in Montana, and beyond.

“We are so thrilled to be able to tie our Main Street to the Mountains trail system into what we consider sort of Main Street to Main Street – to connect all of us to one another,” Pierce said. “By building trails we build community, and we also think trails connect people to the land and the landscape, and what could be better than that?”

Also present at the gathering was Jason Karp, Belgrade city planning director, who told the Belgrade News this week that the city will be heavily involved in bridging some gaps in the cross-country path.

He noted that the route revealed by the conservancy uses the now-under-construction “M” trail, a GVLT project along Bridger Canyon Road, then continues through Bozeman, and follows the Valley Center path to the new Jackrabbit path, right into Belgrade.

“The unplanned part stops in Belgrade, so we have to figure out where to go from there,” Karp said, adding that some possibilities for extending the trail to Manhattan and Three Forks might be along Amsterdam Road or River Rock.

Aside from the recreational opportunities the contiguous trail will provide, Karp is excited about its potential economic benefits to the city.

“This will be a national route,” he said. “Touring cyclists are going to be stopping in our towns and eating in our restaurants.”

“Touring cyclists eat a lot,” he added, with a nod to his personal experience.

Bob Walker, chairman of the Montana Trails Coalition that was founded two years ago to find common ground between numerous recreational and conservation groups, agreed that the economic benefits of an expanded trail system cannot be overstated.

“Statewide, right now, (the economic benefit of) outdoor recreation is 7.1 billion dollars,” he told the Three Forks assembly. “It’s at the top of the food chain in Montana (along) with agriculture.”

The conservancy’s Belanger said that the Headwaters trail system is tremendously important to the success of the national project, and that’s why it was chosen for recognition as a “gateway trail” last week. He thanked everyone involved for recognizing that “a trail across Montana is a reality, is an inevitability, and is a necessity.”

Walker agreed.

“The future is bright here in Montana,” he said. “I can’t wait to see people from all over the world come to Montana on this rail trail and enjoy the Last Best Place.”