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Beauty of lower Silver Bow Creek still off limits in some parts
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Beauty of lower Silver Bow Creek still off limits in some parts

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Still closed to the public nine months after the cleanup work ended, Durant Canyon's beauty will likely remain off limits for another two years, officials say.

Private property rights in the canyon, west of Butte, are the primary holdup, said Department of Environmental Quality project manager Joel Chavez, who oversaw the cleanup work along the approximate 26-mile stretch of creek.

"We have not opened the gates because we can't speak for the other property owners," Chavez said.

Overall, 10 miles of the Silver Bow Creek Greenway Trail have been built along parts of the lower stretch of creek, and $15.5 million has been spent. The money for the Greenway Service District, a two-county program established to build the trail along the creek, has come from grant allocations from the Upper Clark Fork River Basin Restoration, a fund managed by the Natural Resource Damage Program. The fund was established by the state after its legal settlement with Atlantic Richfield Company in 1999.

The district's budget for the entire project is $23 million.

There are 16 miles of trail yet to be built. When the trail is complete, it is expected to run from Butte to Opportunity. Currently the trail begins at Whiskey Gulch, just west of Butte.

Five of those 16 miles yet to be constructed will go through Durant Canyon, said Butte-Silver Bow community development coordinator Dori Skrukrud.

So far, the service district has purchased or secured over 150 acres of land along the lower creek. Skrukrud estimates that the district has about another 80 acres yet to negotiate for purchasing.

Skrukrud said the district has worked out 25 easements with the various utilities, agencies, private landowners, and the railroads who own right-of-way or property along the creek and its floodplain. But another approximately 15 easements still have to be negotiated.

The primary private landowners in the canyon, located just east of Fairmont Road, are the railroads. Three rail lines run through the canyon and continue eastward to Port of Montana, a major transportation hub for freight 8 miles west of Butte. Patriot Rail, which bought Rarus, owns one line. The other rail line is owned by Burlington Northern Sante Fe, or BNSF. Both lines are active.

A third line is abandoned, said Skrukrud.

The district is actively working on the land acquisition issue as well as easements, but the holdup is really the complexity of the ownership, said Skrukrud.

"We're plugging along," said Skrukrud.

But it's not a simple process. Both Chavez and Skrukrud called the land ownership along lower Silver Bow Creek a "checkerboard."

Skrukrud said one of the hardest parts of the whole process has been approaching private landowners about purchasing land that is not for sale.

Other landowners include DEQ and ARCO, both of whom have cooperated with the district, Skrukrud said. But working out the agreements, easements, land donations, right-of-way concerns, not to mention safety protocols, has been both time-consuming and complex.

Besides the active rail lines, there are transmission lines, the Silver Lake water line, and gas lines underground. The district has worked with the Montana Department of Transportation, Butte-Silver Bow County Public Works Department, NorthWestern Energy, and Bonneville Power Administration. They all have lines that crisscross or parallel the creek or are situated within the creek's floodplain. In addition to working out agreements with these agencies and companies for public access, the district has to be cognizant of potential future issues that could crop up, such as if a crane has to be brought into the canyon to lift a derailed railroad car or if a truck with a lift bucket might be needed down the road to work on transmission lines.

Other safety adjustments have been as simple as changing the gates at each trailhead to allow a single handicapped man who rides a hand cycle get through. But some safety adjustments have been as complex as building a pedestrian tunnel underneath a rail line west of Fairmont Road because the trail needed to cross the track. The district found that the only way for walkers to safely cross required building the tunnel.

Skrukrud says another tunnel is tentatively planned under one of the rail tracks in Durant Canyon.

Despite how far the district has yet to go to complete the trail, Skrukrud pointed out that the canyon is a big chunk of the 16 miles yet to be finished. In addition to negotiating easements and purchasing property, the district is putting up fencing along the railroad and building stations and trailheads. A station is under construction at the town of Silver Bow, about 8 miles west of Butte. It is expected to be complete in July of this year. Each station contains restrooms, parking lots and picnic tables.

The good news is that by the time the private property issues and easements are all worked out, the vegetation in Durant Canyon will likely be hardy enough to withstand the public using the area. Because the canyon was the last section of the creek DEQ tackled during the cleanup, it is the section with the most fragile vegetation. Public use could damage a cleanup that cost, in total, around $125 million.

But the best news is how much the area has transformed as a result of the 16-year cleanup.

"That's what's so cool about this project," Skrukrud said. "It's naturalizing; it's evolving; it changes."

Enhancements already put in place along the 10 miles of trail include bridges over the creek and benches placed along the way. A pond developed on its own along the path 2 miles west of Ramsay. Other little ponds have surfaced or were constructed by DEQ during the cleanup.

Along the trail from Silver Bow to Ramsay are wooden benches and bluebird boxes voluntarily built by Eagle Scout Blake Kraus.

And then there's the wildlife. A person taking a walk or a bike ride on the blacktop path might see a blue bird or a great blue heron or hear the slap of a beaver's tail. The site is a long way from what it once was — a creek devoid of life that ran in disturbing colors due to over a 100 years of mining activity.

And in about two years, the public will have the opportunity to enjoy all of lower Silver Bow Creek's transformation, including Durant Canyon.

"We're not trying to lock anybody out," Chavez said. "Eventually it'll be wide open, I know that."

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Environmental and natural resources reporter for the Montana Standard.

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