By Maria Wyllie EBS Associate Editor

HELENA – On July 16, the Montana State Park’s Recreational Trails Program awarded $1.5 million to 60 of 89 applicants across the state to help fund development and maintenance of recreational trails, as well as trail-related facilities for both winter and summer use. Eligible applicants can include federal, state, county or municipal agencies, private associations and clubs.

Top ranking project proposals this year, according to Montana RTP Manager Beth Shumate, included those submitted by Gallatin Valley Land Trust, a trails and conservation nonprofit in Bozeman, as well as the parks and trails organization Big Sky Community Corp.

“I think BSCC’s project rose to the top since the RTP funds would help create both transportation and recreational opportunities for all ages and abilities,” Shumate said.

BSCC received a $20,000 grant to help complete Phase 2 of the Community Center Trails Project. Phase 2 will see the completion of the connector trail linking the Uplands and Ousel Falls trails, according to BSCC Project Manager Emily O’Connor. Grant funds will be used to pay for construction contracts and staff time needed for the project, O’Connor said.

“The major thing is that this grant is supporting the expansion of trails that will actually connect two of our highest used trails, and therefore take some of the traffic off of those trails,” said BSCC Executive Director Ciara Wolfe.

GVLT was awarded $30,000 to help with two projects that are a part of a larger Main-Street-to-Mountains trail system.

Half the money will fund a vault toilet, expand parking with handicap spaces, and add bike racks and a gate, as well as landscaping at Snowfill Park, a 37-acre off-leash dog park located north of downtown.

The beloved park sees thousands of users, including kids who come to sled there in the winter, yet it currently has no amenities for people.

“These improvements were really necessary,” said GVLT Executive Director Penelope Pierce, adding that the nonprofit also raised private funds to make the project happen.

GVLT will use the remaining $15,000 from the RTP grant for a new entrance at Bozeman’s Peets Hill/Burke Park, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year.

The current entry way is a narrow, unsafe culvert faced with erosion issues, according to Pierce. With RTP and privately raised funds, GLVT hopes to break ground in September to replace the culvert with a bridge that users can cross to enter what Pierce calls the “crown jewel of Bozeman’s downtown parks and trails system.”

“We are excited about both of these [projects] because they are both important, central, iconic community parks,” Pierce said. “The impact will be widely felt and widely appreciated.”

A plethora of volunteers, partnerships, and a variety of funding sources has helped GVLT accomplish its long-term vision and allowed it to fair well in the application process, according to Shumate.

“We want to put money toward something that is long lasting and accessible and sustainable, and not just going to go away in five years,” Shumate said.

RTP awarded grants for various sized projects on three cost levels: under $20,000; $20,000-$45,000; and one at $90,000.

“We try to keep award amounts smaller so that we can award more projects across the state,” said Shumate, adding that some states will opt to fund fewer, more expensive projects.

“It creates a whole lot more work, but we feel the benefits are big,” she said of the rationale behind smaller awards. “It allows for more diversification of projects that we are funding.”

Prior to allocating funds, Shumate assesses each proposal with the Montana State Trails Advisory Committee, which currently consists of 10 diverse trails users from around the state.

Shumate says projects that do well engage the entire community through partnerships, have long-term vision and goals, and strong maintenance plans.

Since Shumate started as RTP manager six years ago, she’s noticed more applications coming in from central and eastern Montana.

As the only trail-maintenance funding source, RTP receives numerous maintenance requests. However, since asphalt requires more maintenance, Shumate says applicants are realizing that building accessible trail systems with natural surface types are more likely to be funded.

RTP funds are available through Moving Ahead for Progress, a two-year transportation bill providing funding for federal highway, transit, alternative transportation and safety programs that was slated to expire in 2014. Congress extended the program through May of this year.

Until Congress is able to find a funding solution for transportation systems, RTP funding through the Highway Trust Fund remains uncertain, but Shumate is anticipating another year of extensions, she said.

Since RTP has operated on a yearly basis since its formation in 1992, Montana State Parks will proceed as if the money will be there, Shumate says.

“It’s always come through because we feel there’s so much support from both motorized and non-motorized user groups all the way up to the congressional level,” she said.

Reiterating that RTP is the only funding source available for trail maintenance needs, Shumate says it would be detrimental to Montana recreationalists if the program were to fold.

“You can build a trail, but if you can’t maintain it then you are going to have major issues down the road,” she said.