Preserving The Trails

Project purpose:
The project will preserve the Lewis and Clark Trail, on the Missouri River across from the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center, and provide critical access for future expansion of the River’s Edge Trail on the north shore of the Missouri River.

Project background:
In the 1970s, Paul and Bernice Wilhelm purchased a 27-acre parcel of land across the Missouri River from Giant Springs State Park and the site of the present day Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center. The Wilhelms built a home on the edge of the Missouri River, and kept the rest of the land undeveloped. Since that time interest in waterfront properties along the river has grown substantially, both among developers and groups seeking to preserve the natural habitat of such areas. Both sides of the Missouri River, downstream from Black Eagle Falls to Sulphur Springs – approximately 14 miles – remain largely in their natural state. Virtually all of the north side of the river is protected by conservation easements, guaranteeing that the land will remain undeveloped indefinitely. The Wilhelm parcels and the Wilhelm house have been the only exceptions to that.

In a related development, Great Falls’ Rivers Edge Trail has expanded significantly along the Missouri River throughout the 1990s. Much of the early trail development began in an abandoned railway on the South shore, and today this trail area has largely been completed. Attention in recent years has begun to focus on the north shore of the river.

In 1998, the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center was built on the south shore, near Giant Springs State Park. At the time it was designed, the facility was purposely oriented toward the undeveloped portion of the Wilhelm property, with large sweeping windows offering an impressive view of the Missouri River and the north shore. Throughout the past eight years negotiations for the purchase of this 15-acre undeveloped tract of land have continued, with little success. In 2006 the Wilhelm family completed its application and requirements for subdividing the raw land into three 5-acre parcels. With the property listed for sale through a realtor and advertised in the Multiple Listing Service beginning in March 2006, the property was at serious risk of being sold and developed at any time. Because the urgency of the situation required immediate action, the Lewis and Clark Foundation committed to purchase the land, knowing that the full purchase price would need to be raised to cover the cost of the acquisition.

The project addresses three needs:

Preserves the view from the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center. Perhaps one of the most impressive features of the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center for visitors is the sweeping panorama of the north shore as it was when Lewis and Clark traveled through the area 200 years ago. Had the parcel been sold to a developer or other private party, undoubtedly a private residence and accompanying structures would be built on the property, directly in front of the Center.

In addition to the importance of preserving the view, this was the only parcel remaining at risk of being developed for a total distance of 18 riverfront miles. To save this parcel from development preserves a vital and important part of the Lewis and Clark Trail – an area of majestic waterfalls, springs and other natural phenomena, which kept the Lewis and Clark Expedition in the area for several weeks. Preservation of this parcel of land preserves the Lewis and Clark Trail.

Preserves a vitally important stretch of waterfront for the River’s Edge Trail. With the south shore development of the River’s Edge Trail largely complete, Recreational Trails Inc. has turned its focus to the north shore. The Wilhelm parcel is a key puzzle piece in the trail matrix, and one that had proven elusive for years. Acquisition of the parcel opens the options for trail expansion on the North Shore, connecting the remaining two properties and making possible the completion of the North Shore trail.

Preserves Public Access. While preserving both the Lewis and Clark Trail and providing space to expand the River’s Edge Trail, the project accomplishes the very important goal of creating new public access. For years the site has been closed to the public. Besides trail access, the site could be used for unique programming across from the Interpretive Center, fishing access, or other complementary recreational pursuits such as hiking.