Members of the Missoula City Council convened last week to hash out what has been a confusing and at times contentious issue—Knife River Corp.'s future remediation plans for an 86.5-acre riverfront gravel mining operation municipal officials hope to transform into a recreational area.
"When they're pushing earth around, we just want them to push it in the right place," Missoula Parks and Recreation Director Donna Gaukler explained to the city's conservation committee.
Gaukler's statement was intended to simplify a sprawling discussion that dates back to 2002, when Knife River's predecessor, JTL Group Inc., agreed to gift its Fort Missoula property to the municipal parks system in 2012. Based on that agreement, the city incorporated Knife River's property as a cornerstone of the Fort Missoula Master Plan, which calls for the creation of a 246-acre multi-use park.
However, according to the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), which regulates gravel operations, Knife River has significantly outgrown the 33 acres it's currently permitted to mine. The expansion means there is less land and larger ponds—the remnants of mining—than the city anticipated, leaving DEQ, Missoula officials, Knife River and local citizens debating exactly how the company should leave the property.
"I think what the citizens were trying to point out is this: 'Knife River, you agreed to these shorelines, and now you're going to take out a big chunk of what definitely augments [the park] or is an asset?'" Gaukler said during last week's committee meeting. "I'm disappointed if that's truly what happens, because I think that changes the plan quite a bit."
Knife River now says it intends to leave the land suitable for a wildlife refuge, rather than a park, as stated in the 2002 agreement.
Knife River regional president David Zinke says the company would prefer to resolve the issue through local negotiations with city officials, rather than through regulation or legal wrangling.
Zinke adds that Knife River remains committed to gifting the property and is already in the process of making improvements in preparation for its departure.
"We started sloping the ponds and putting some wildlife islands out there for the geese," he says.