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Seeley Lake Trails Project map

This map of the Seeley Lake Trails Project area shows ownership of major public or accessible lands where backcountry trails could be expanded or improved.

MISSOULA — Few things tempt an outdoors lover more than a blank map.

For folks in Seeley Lake, map-filling season starts Saturday when the Seeley Lake Trails Project starts its public process. Almost two years of research and planning have already taken place. The next four or five months will show how imaginative local backcountry travelers can get.

“Seeley Lake has a central location, where you can get to Swan Lake, Condon, Lincoln, Ovando, Potomac, Missoula, Bigfork, Arlee and St. Ignatius,” said Cathy Kahnle, executive director of the Clearwater Resource Council. “We could be the hub of the wheel, where you can go anywhere in the region. We could have a regional trails system that brings economic development to the whole system.”

Lots of routes for hiking, snowmobiling, biking, cross-country skiing and horseback riding already exist in the Seeley-Swan Valley. But the potential exists to grow that web by connecting loops, improving maintenance, and possibly pioneering new paths.

“Our trails up here are really high-quality,” said co-organizer Jenny Rohrer. “And those of us who live here know how to access them. But if you’re coming here as a visitor or from out of state, it might be a bit of a puzzle.”

That’s a matter of publicity – letting everyone know what’s available. While the Seeley Lake Ranger Station has maps of its National Forest amenities, they may not show which routes are good for snowmobiles in winter, or preferred by bicyclists over horse riders in the summer. Better local signage could also make a difference.

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The process starts with a workshop on Saturday where participants in the Seeley Lake Trails Project can review what’s already on the ground, take surveys about the kinds of improvements they’d like to see, and learn about the choices up for consideration.

“We want to get areas identified where people want trails, and then give them criteria on how to rate trails,” Kahnle said. “That’s things like what does it cost, does it need easements or land purchases, how feasible is it, are there sensitive environmental issues to deal with? Then we bring it back to the community, and vote on which they want to see done the most.”

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For example, volunteer work might suffice to extend a cross-country ski trail, but government approval might be needed to rebuild a failing forest road to a popular destination. When dealing with limited budgets, a sense of what projects earn the most popularity helps set priorities.

Rohrer said the survey process will extend through early June to ensure lots of the area’s summer residents get to participate. The project also seeks feedback from official institutions like the Forest Service and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, and large private landowners like The Nature Conservancy.

Kahnle said planning the project demanded cooperation from many factions that haven’t shared a table before

“You do stick your neck out when you’re working in a group with somebody on the other side,” Kahnle said. “We agreed we’re all going to work together so something happens for every group.”

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