County trails plan ready for final vote

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The Flathead County Parks and Recreation Board is set to vote Monday on a revised county trails plan that sets out a vision for a regional multi-use trail network. After a year and a half of work, it’s time to finally send this document to the commissioners for final approval.

As the draft plan points out, a strong trail network can bring a wide range of benefits to county residents. Trails can generate significant business impacts and create new jobs; access to trails can improve public health; trails can be associated with higher property values; and trails can measurably improve a community’s quality of life.

A survey included in the draft plan found that a whopping 95 percent of respondents use trails in the Flathead Valley at least once a month. Nearly half of county residents use trails at least once per week, the survey found.

Clearly there’s a demand for this type of amenity.

While there has been much discussion recently about how the county will pay for maintaining such a trail network, we don’t believe those concerns — while valid — should trip up the forthcoming approval process.

It is certainly true that routine maintenance will be crucial to the success of the network, and that work isn’t cheap. But as the Associated Chambers of the Flathead points out in a letter in support of the plan, nothing in the document “would obligate the county to allocate funding for trails.”

What’s more, the plan shows that the primary source of funding for trail development and maintenance will likely come from grants and private fundraising. Adopting the plan would actually lend to the county’s ability to secure that grant funding. As we’ve seen time and time again, state and federal dollars often go to groups with so-called “shovel-ready” plans in hand.

The trails plan also says that volunteer groups will play a vital role in maintenance and many groups are eager to do the work. But as Commissioner Phil Mitchell points out, there are real concerns about liabilities associated with volunteer work on county trails. Mitchell is right to ask for solutions to this obstacle, but it shouldn’t be the wrench that stops this plan from going forward.

A property mill tax levy could provide a long-term funding source for maintenance and operations, the plan says, but that option wouldn’t happen without a vote by the taxpayers anyway.

This plan has been well vetted by county staff and representatives from the U.S. Forest Service, the National Park Service, the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, Flathead Land Trust, Rails to Trails of Northwest Montana, Whitefish Legacy Partners and Gateway to Glacier Trail, among others. The public process has been thorough. Now it’s time to lace up our boots and push the plan across the finish line.

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