Missoula County commissioners last month began reviewing a petition to abandon a roughly 300-foot patch of unused county road west of Lolo. But the proposal, put forth by a neighboring landowner keen to acquire the property, is turning heads in the preservation community. Some contend this scrap of dirt is part of a bigger story: The 1877 flight of the Nez Perce from eastern Oregon to Canada.
As executive director of the Nez Perce Trail Foundation, based in Salmon, Idaho, Jim Evans has worked for decades to preserve large swaths of the federally recognized trail in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. He’s led pack trips and hikers along the 1,170-mile route. Development and privatization have become a constant threat, he says. Roughly 61 percent of the trail is under private ownership, with easements allowing public access across some of that property.
“Particularly in some of the areas where development has taken place, we’ve been very close to losing access to the route,” Evans says. Of the Lolo road abandonment, he adds “this is probably one of the bigger threats we’ve had in the last five or six years.”
Landowner Dave Trusty has been pushing the petition since 1992, claiming that the road, which dead-ends on his property, is encumbering his ability to sell the parcel. According to Commissioner Michele Landquist, Trusty has already been using the county land for years. But the historic concerns over this particular plot arose only recently, she says, after a representative from the Salish tribe attended a viewing of the abandonment site.
Landquist declined to comment on how consideration for the Nez Perce trail might impact the abandonment. But she questions why the parties now raising those concerns didn’t do so earlier.
There’s little doubt in Evans’ mind that the road in question was long ago trod by nearly 800 Nez Perce as they descended into what is now Lolo. The word “trail” is misleading, Evans says. “There’s no such a thing as a trail, because when you have 2,500 head of horses and 800 people, you don’t go head-to-toe on an 18-inch tread.” Even if Trusty puts the parcel up for sale, Evans says his group doesn’t have the funds to purchase and protect it.
Landquist says the Missoula County Board of County Commission is scheduled to continue its review of the abandonment petition during a public meeting Feb. 27. That meeting will be the primary opportunity for public comment.