First loop opens Sept. 30

By Jessianne Wright EBS Contributor

THREE FORKS – Five miles north of Three Forks on Highway 287, a green road sign points the way to Copper City. The narrow dirt road takes drivers east, dropping through a small coulee and over a cattle guard, and if you drive far enough, you’ll come to the ghost town of Copper City, a late 19th century mining settlement. The landscape is scattered with sage and dotted with juniper, crinkled with coulees and rock outcroppings.

Rock cairns built of malachite rocks, green for their copper, stand sentinel in a parking lot one mile up the road on the right. These cairns mark the beginning of the first trail built within the Copper City Trails Project, sponsored by the Southwest Montana Mountain Bike Association and open to its first ride Sept. 30 for National Public Lands Day.

The trails system has been nine years in the making, and will be a set of progressive trail loops about 17.5 miles long open to mountain bikers and hikers. Mapped out across land owned by the Bureau of Land Management, the area is intended for multiple uses, with grazing leases and target shooting opportunities nearby coupled with the newly designated bike and foot trails. The trails will cover roughly 2,800 acres, leaving swaths of the BLM land open for other uses as well.

“This is national federal land,” said Tim Hawke, an energetic SWMMBA volunteer and project manager of the Copper City Trails Project. Looking out to the new Green Eagle Trail shortly after the Aug. 26 groundbreaking, he said, “This belongs to all of us.”

Hawke, who grew up in Billings and comes from a long line of Butte Cornish miners, dreamed up the whole idea of a Copper City trails network. “I wanted to create a shoulder season trail area,” he says. Built into an exposed landscape, Hawke said while variable, the snow blows and melts, meaning bikers can use the trails spring through fall and fat bikes are an option in the winter.

The trail winds and meanders, with what SWMMBA development director Melissa Cronin describes as “swoops” that make the path friendly to kids as well as mountain biking beginners. Future trails will increase in difficulty, starting off easy and getting more challenging as the miles stack up. “The further you go, the more you will be tested and challenged,” Hawke said.

Hawke and other volunteers plotted the trail by hand, walking with flags and referring to Google Earth. At various intervals, the trail runs past rock outcroppings that provide places to rest and refresh, or explore rubber on rock.

Nine years in the making, the Copper City Trails Project near Three Forks is underway, with construction on the first trail beginning earlier this month. Approximately 4 miles comprising the Green Eagle Trail will be open for riding Sept. 30. PHOTOS BY MELISSA CRONIN

The Copper City Trails Project is a partnership between SWMMBA and the Butte Field Office of the BLM. Equidistant from Bozeman, Butte and Helena, this trails project is an opportunity to serve the community, Cronin said.

“A trail system as such,” Hawke added, nodding to the trail running out before him, “can bring a lot of money to a small community without actually changing it.” According to Hawke, these kinds of recreational opportunities will bring more visitors to the Three Forks area, and maybe a new bike shop will open, but ultimately the area’s character won’t change.

“This is a social contract with the community,” Cronin said, noting that building the trail is just the beginning. In the next few years, SWMMBA will build additional trail loops and they will all need to be maintained.

“It’s kind of like planting a tree,” Cronin said. “They say that people who plant a garden or trees are the most optimistic people because they plan for the future. But I’ve amended that, I think people who build trials are the most optimistic people.”

“We want this to be a catalyst for people to get really involved with the trails they love and come out and swing a shovel,” Hawke said. He’s pleased with the effort that’s been expended thus far, and he hopes to continue seeing volunteers join SWMMBA for future trail work days. “The community support has been phenomenal,” he said.

In the spirit of giving, or in the way Hawke describes as “old-school Montana style,” much of the work so far has been through donation. The Montana Conservation Corps received a grant that was used toward one week of volunteer work on the Green Eagle Trail, and the project has been funded in part by a grant from REI.

Grant Best, with Bozeman’s Bo Trails, donated his time on an excavator to rough in the first trail. Volunteers did hand work following him with rakes and other hand tools donated by local stores. Sign posts are made of reclaimed timber and the signs were made and donated as well.

To celebrate the opening of the Green Eagle Trail, bikers are invited to join SWMMBA at the Copper City Trailhead Sept. 30 for a barbeque and day full of riding and working on the trail. Cronin and Hawke encourage carpooling, and as with any trip to the trail, bring water because there isn’t a water source at Copper City.

For more information about the Copper City Trails Project visit coppercitytrails.org. To learn about SWMMBA, visit southwestmontanamba.org.