Project part of nearly 4,000-mile cross-country trail system
By Gabrielle Gasser
MANHATTAN, Mont. – Local trails organizations are building 7 miles of new trails to connect the Headwaters Trail System in Three Forks with the Manhattan Trail System in Manhattan. The effort will ultimately become part of the Great American Rail Trail system, a project that will connect the country through a network of trails spanning 3,700 miles from Washington, D.C. to Washington state.
The Manhattan Trail System is a nonprofit founded in 2019 to construct a trail between Manhattan and the Headwaters trail in Three Forks. The two local trail systems have partnered on the project and garnered support from the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, a nonprofit organization founded in 1986 to create a national network of trails in the U.S. by converting former railroad corridors into trails that are more accessible to a wider majority of people.
The Great American Rail Trail effort was launched in 2019 by the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy and will be a multiuse trail spanning 12 states. The trail is currently 53 percent complete with 2,000 existing miles on 150 different trails already in place. Fifty-four miles have been added to the route since the effort launched in 2019.
Local efforts are led by Buck Buchanan, president of the Manhattan Trail System, and Gene Townsend, chairperson of the Headwaters Trail System, with national support from Kevin Belanger, manager of trail planning with the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy.
Belanger works closely with local organizations to assist in planning and provide support. He said they recently finished a series of national Zoom meetings where representatives from each state provided progress reports.
“The enthusiasm in Montana is very infectious, and I love speaking to the folks in Montana because they show up in full force,” Belanger said.
Townsend and Buchanan are planning to connect the trail from the Gallatin River in Manhattan to the Jefferson River in Three Forks. To do this, the two groups will need to build approximately 8 miles of trail from the west edge of Manhattan through Logan to connect with the Headwaters Trail System along U.S. Highway 10 West, which parallels Interstate 90.
Once that smaller piece is in place, the next step, according to Buchanan, is to expand east from Four Corners, connecting to Belgrade and eventually into Bozeman near MAP Brewing Company. That Bozeman connection would then provide access to all trails in Bozeman, including the M Trail.
The ultimate goal, Buchanan said, would be to hook into the Rail Tail creating a continuous stretch from Livingston to Butte where he said further work on the network is being done.
“There’s just so many moving parts,” Buchanan said. “It’s unbelievable and that’s why it hasn’t been done before, because it’s really complicated to try to pull this thing off.”
Buchanan explained that the main challenge, now that the approximately 7 miles of trail have been proposed and garnered support, is obtaining the necessary land easements.
“It makes sense for us to work together and see what we can do and it’s a little more challenging than it used to be because it’s a little harder to get easements alongside the state highways,” Townsend said. “In this area that we’re going to be working there will also be some challenges presented to us because of the railroad.”
Despite these challenges, both Buchanan and Townsend emphasized the benefits of the project, which include giving bikers a safe alternative route to highways and a boost to local economies.
“I think there’s a lot of enthusiasm, especially in Gallatin County, and I’d really like to think in Montana, for the trail systems,” Townsend said. “People are starting to realize what we can do and what’s been done, and I think it’ll happen.”
Buchanan also voiced his faith in the project along with wider support he has received.
“I haven’t talked to a single person, and that is including the railroad and the department of transportation, that say it’s a bad idea,” he said.
So far, with help from Stahly Engineering, a Montana based civil engineering and survey firm, Buchanan and Townsend have an initial survey and numbers for the connector trail.
Funding for the project will come entirely from fundraising efforts and private donations, Buchanan said. Manhattan Trails has already raised several thousand
dollars, he added, and moving forward, 10 percent of all funds raised will be earmarked for maintenance.
Each of the partners in the project had only praise for the others as they work together to make this new trail a reality.
“Buck has been great, and he is the right kind of persistent,” Belanger said of Buchanan. “He will reach out to you if he hasn’t heard from you in a while with some updates and new ideas and always wants to be asking questions and getting advice and running things. He’s a great advocate to have locally.”
Buchanan in turn offered praise to Townsend who has been involved with the Headwaters Trail System since 1997.
“He was the driving force behind all that stuff there wouldn’t be a trail to connect to if it wasn’t for Gene Townsend,” he said.
A solid timeline for construction of the connector trail is yet to be established since the project is still raising funds and securing required easements, but Buchanan emphasized the importance of this project to the area.
“I think it’d be an economic boost for the towns of Manhattan, Logan and Three Forks,” he said. “Trails are something that seem to come up in everybody’s growth policy. Citizens are interested in having access to trails for outside recreation and I think that this plays right into that.”
Visit manhattantrailsystem.com for more information on the project or to make a donation.