Last spring, western Montana's cross-country skiing community received some incredible news. Former Olympian John Morton—co-owner of the Vermont-based recreational planning company Morton Trails—had completed a feasibility study for a high-end Nordic events and training center due north of Seeley Lake. The study, requested by the Missoula Area Economic Development Corporation and financed in part by the Montana Department of Commerce, was the first major step toward establishing what Seeley Lake residents and businesses hope will be a nationally renowned Nordic hotspot.
Now the Seeley Lake Nordic Challenge Steering Committee, the citizen group behind the plan, has more good news. The U.S. Forest Service this summer earmarked $450,000 for improvements to the existing 15-kilometer Seeley Creek trail system, which will provide the foundation for additional interconnected Nordic trail networks throughout the valley in years to come. The improvements are tentatively set for 2013, and the Forest Service intends to consider new trail opportunities when conducting forest cuts in the Seeley area.
Adrienne Marx, Seeley Lake Community Council chair and member of the steering committee, says it's further proof that the cross-country skiing plan is a "no-brainer" in the eyes of locals, the state, and the federal government.
"The Forest Service, because of the momentum we created, thought, 'What can we do to make this come along faster?'" Marx says. So Forest Service officials in Montana submitted an investment proposal to the agency headquarters in Washington, D.C. Out of 80 such proposals submitted nationwide, Seeley's was one of only 20 that survived the first cut. From there they were whittled down to 10 finalists. "And the Nordic center, the trail system here, ended up eighth on the list," Marx says.
Seeley Lake still has a long road ahead before it sees new cross-country trails, day lodges and enhanced grooming. The preferred plan, which would cost close to $3.2 million, is to cut another 125 kilometers of trail in the area, build connecting sidewalks and waxing cabins, and construct a venue for Nordic competitions and biathlons. The steering committee is currently working on getting nonprofit status. Until then, Marx says, they'll continue to develop the project with fundraising assistance from Missoula County Rural Initiatives, an arm of the county government.
When the Department of Commerce first offered the steering committee a $15,000 grant to fund a feasibility study for the Nordic center, the deal came with a catch: Seeley had to raise an additional $10,000. The state gave residents 90 days to come up with the cash. Marx says they did it in less than 60.
"It's become an economic driver," Marx says. "It'll of course help Seeley Lake, but it's also noted that Missoula will benefit greatly, as well as the region."
The steering committee's hope is to one day draw national and international talent to Seeley Lake for training, perhaps even for Nordic competitions. Attracting accomplished athletes like John Morton, who visited last winter to conduct the feasibility study, will also be an inspiration to local youngsters, Marx says.
"The kids are all out skiing now," she adds. Some of them even entered last year's Over Seeley's Creeks and Ridges, an annual Nordic marathon. "Two little boys rode their bikes over snowy roads, towing their skis behind them, just to race."