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Avista Working to Bring Network of Trails to Area

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By Trish Gannon

It’s payback time for Avista Corp. In 1999, as part of their re-licensing agreement on the Cabinet Gorge and Noxon dams, Avista and 26 other organizations developed the Clark Fork Settlement Agreement, which required of Avista a comprehensive plan for the protection mitigation, and enhancement of fish, water quality, wetlands, wildlife, recreation, aesthetic and cultural resources in the lower Clark Fork River valley. The recreation part of that agreement, the Recreation Resource Management Plan, required, in part, that Avista undertake a trail feasibility study to look at opportunities for trails and trail improvements from Thompson Falls, Montana to Clark Fork, Idaho. Midway through that process, Brian Burky, project manager, and representatives from the National Parks Service, held two meetings in Clark Fork and Thompson Falls to gather public input on the placement of trails.
    That public input hasn’t been all positive, even though the idea of a trail system is something Avista is required to give back to the community in order to continue to do business – hydroelectric business – on the community’s river, the Clark Fork. Some public concern has arisen, in part, because Avista owns the riverfront in Montana – the width of land on either side of the Clark Fork varies dramatically. Some residents with property that overlooks the river say a trail system in their view property is the last thing they want.
    “Think about a real estate broker telling a client how beautiful a property is if you ignore the debris along the shoreline, the onslaught of hikers novice and uncaring hunters,” writes Montana resident Millie Dey in a letter to the editor. “We really look forward to that! Right? Do you think that property owners like losing money? Do you think property owners like their privacy invaded daily? Do you and questionable types walking the trail or the exercise you get by ducking bullets from think property owners like to pay taxes that support an agency that ignores their concerns and devalues their properties? Do you think we like our lives threatened unnecessarily? Folks, the answer is no!” Dey referenced the Glacial Lake Missoula proposed floods trail, but says she carries the same objections to the proposed Avista trails; and adds that she has no trust for the company she refers to as Washington Water Power.
    "There are people with legitimate concerns about placement of trails," Burky said, and mentioned the Noxon/Cabinet Shoreline Coalition. "We're working very closely with those people."
    Burky says the Avista project is sensitive to those types of community concerns. “We’re not gonna build a trail where people don’t want it,” he said. “That wouldn’t help anybody. "We're only going to place trails where they're wanted." According to documents for the trail study, “the trail system will be designed and located in a manner that respects the privacy of private homeowners and Avista permit holders. Trail routes will not be located near private homes and/or recreational cabins, unless the property owner requests otherwise.”
    Determining where those trails will go was a primary purpose in the public meetings recently held. Large, laminated maps of the river system from Thompson to Clark Fork were laid out on tables, and visitors were asked to mark in green pen where they’d like to see a trail. More importantly, in terms of working with public concerns, they were given red pens to mark areas where they think a trail system shouldn’t go.
    Hugh Osborne, a National Parks Service employee form the Denver office whose background is primarily in trail development, and whose expertise is in the community process, is one of the participants in the trails study. “We’re here to find out what people think,” he said. He reminded folks, as well, that there are many types of trails that can be considered: for bikes, horses, nature walks, interpretive trails, information kiosks and water trails, in addition to traditional hiking trails that can be complete in and of themselves, or even tie into other, existing trails in the area. “It certainly doesn’t have to be a continuous trail,” Burky added. And though the system will be designed primarily for non-motorized use, there is the possibility that snowmobiling may be allowed “where appropriate.”
    According to handouts provided at the meetings, interpretation and education are integral components of any trail system. “There are abundant opportunities to teach people about various habitats and the wildlife and plants that utilize different areas,” they write. They also point out that “human use and occupation of the lower Clark Fork river valley extends back at least 8,000 years,” and that, “these themes and stores are of great interest to residents and visitors to the region, and there are many locations in the corridor where these stories could be told.”
    In addition, geologic and hydrologic history (Glacial Lake Missoula); and information on forest practices and local economic activity are also themes around which trail sections could be built.
    In addition to the trails themselves, the plan allows for signs and exhibits, brochures, guided walks and tours, self-guided interpretive loops, websites and K-12 curriculum guides for local school educators.
    Avista has a “recreation” budget of $187,000 for the first five years of the re-licensing agreement and $150,000 a year after that. “That money has to fund a lot of things along that corridor,” Burky explained. Avista currently provides funding support for recreation opportunities from baseball fields to boat ramps. Still, Burky says a portion of those dollars can be used as “seed money” to create new trails, and could be used to provide the “matching funds” portion of available grants.
    Some potential trail areas have already been identified, including trails along Highway 200, recently designated a National Scenic Byway; from Thompson Falls to Trout Creek along Blue Slide road; on Avista lands along the reservoirs; the “old highway” from Clark Fork to Heron; and from the state park to Thompson Falls Dam. Those areas aren’t set in stone, however, and Avista is open to hearing about other potential trail sites. “I want to emphasize that Avista is providing opportunity for the community to provide input,” Burky said. “Our license requires us to do this trail study. We want to hear what the people want.”
    Burky can be reached at 406-847-2729 or via email at brian.burky(at)avistacorp.com

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Landon Otis

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