Milltown State Park: How a State Park is Made

There are over 700 million visits to the more than 6,600 state-run parks, recreation areas, historic sites, beaches, and nature preserves across America every year. From sea to shining sea, we all probably have a favorite state park, either for our own enjoyment or for the satisfaction they serve our families. It’s plain reality that visitors are brought closer to nature through public spaces that invite and encourage them to get back to basics and relax away from whatever their responsibilities are outside the park’s boundaries.

But one wonders: How do the parks come into being? We talked about the CCC’s work in the past, but what has to happen to make all the hiking, camping, swimming, boating, and other outdoor activities we enjoy on thousands and thousands of acres of public land possible?

Clark Fork River

The Clark Fork River on what is actually a fairly average day. It’s always quite good-looking. [Image: clarkfork.org]

Fortunately this process is presently unfolding just east of Missoula, MT where Milltown State Park is entering the last stages leading up to it fully opening its doors finally.

The park is a 500-acre parcel located at the confluence of the Clark Fork and Blackfoot Rivers, about nine miles east of Missoula. The confluence was the setting for the Milltown Dam for nearly a century. The dam provided hydroelectric energy to the mills in the area so they in turn could process timber for shoring up shafts in Butte’s copper mines. In the 1980s and 1990s, however, the site was investigated and designated a Superfund Site due to toxic, heavy metal saturation in over two million cubic yards of sediment directly surrounding and downstream from the dam, which had contaminated the local water supply. The remediation and restoration began in 2006, and with the help of local, state, and national organizations, was completed in 2012.

The Superfund Site at Milltown Dam, being addressed.

The area near the Milltown Dam shortly after its breaching in 2008. [Image: buttectec.org]

The building of Milltown State Park was the goal of the cleanup project from its start, and the original conceptual design was drawn up in 2007 between the Milltown Superfund Redevelopment Working Group; the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks; the National Park Service Rivers & Trails Program; and the Idaho-Montana Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects. The grant proposal to pay for building the park was submitted in 2009 to the Natural Resource Damage Program.

In 2013 and 2014, Montana State Parks drafted and finalized an Environmental Assessment to be implemented, “pending resolution of access issues.” That latter part refers to the 16-acre plot of privately held land the state would need to make a road and parking lot for park access.

After numerous efforts to bargain for the land and direct involvement on the part of Montana’s governor, it seems as of November 2015 the private company is ready to part with the specific 10-acres needed for the park’s access road—in a manner that is welcome to both the state and the landowner. The final Environmental Assessment on this acquisition is open to the public for questions and comments until November 25th. The park is hopeful it will break ground in the spring and will be up and running by mid- to late-fall 2016.

At present, the park’s main feature is access to a trail that settles into an overlook facing the Clark Fork, a rugged, robust river that makes its way through the Hellgate Canyon and into the Missoula Valley. The overlook is open for day-use purposes, like picnicking or bird watching.

Milltown State Park Information Booth

Some information available at the park that will hopefully be fully open by next fall. [Image: www.kpax.com]

So in a sense, Milltown State Park has been a park-in-the-making over the last decade and is growing toward its potential, thanks to the help of many citizens, environmentalists, and government agencies. A state park, it turns out, is made of the work, time, and attention invested by people who recognize the importance of our relationship with nature and its preservation.

Whew! Knowing all that, it’s easy to feel grateful for the many ways we can enjoy the beautiful parks we already have, which is a good reason to download your state’s Pocket Ranger® mobile app and get on out there today!

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