Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge

The Ravalli County Commission is faced with a challenge in determining the future of the Stevensville end of Wildfowl Lane. The road is popular for accessing the Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge, seen here in this file photo. 

The mile-long stretch of road that leads from Stevensville to the Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge is a popular reach for folks looking for a peaceful walk or nice evening drive to enjoy a bit of nature.

Stevensville High School athletes also use Wildfowl Lane to prepare for their sporting events. It serves, too, as the main entrance to the Whitetail Golf Course.

For the last few years, anyone using that road knew the potholes were getting deeper and they were multiplying.

With its budget already tapped out, the Ravalli County road department opted a couple of weeks ago to fill some of the worst stretches of the pothole-filled road with gravel.

While that made the driving a lot smoother, some members of the county commission have heard complaints from neighbors and others who use road about the resulting dust.

“That piece of road was really breaking up bad,” said Commissioner Greg Chilcott of Stevensville. “While the gravel enhances the drivability of the road, the dust really impacts the people who live along the road.”

The county road department has already used up its annual supply of magnesium chloride for dust abatement.

Even if the county finds some extra cash to pay for dust abatement, Chilcott said that won’t solve the long-term problem the county faces with keeping up with maintenance on its road system, including Wildfowl Lane.

Ravalli County is responsible for the upkeep of about 300 miles of paved road.

“We should be doing about 15 miles of road pavement preservation projects a year to stay on a sound maintenance schedule,” Chilcott said. “We’re probably doing about a third of that. Every year, we get that much further behind.”

Part of the county’s challenge is a result of fluctuating federal funding that’s set aside specifically for road maintenance.

Authorization for the U.S. Forest Service’s Secure Rural Schools (SRS) and Community Self Determination Act program lapsed this year, which could mean an almost $500,000 shortfall for the county road budget.

It’s not the first time that funding from the program has fluctuated.

At one time, rural communities and schools relied on a share of the receipts from timber harvests to help supplement local funding and education services and roads. In the 1980s, national priorities changed and the numbers of timber sales dropped dramatically.

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Congress enacted SRS in 2000 to help counties affected by the decline in those federal revenues. Two-thirds of the congressionally allocated funding is required to be spent on roads, with the remainder earmarked for schools.

When SRS was initially authorized, Chilcott said Ravalli County received about $1.5 million, but the funding from that program has dropped considerably since then.

The county also receives Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) monies from the federal government to help offset property tax losses from public lands inside the county border. While PILT is permanently authorized, it isn’t permanently funded at a specific level, Chilcott said.

SRS funding is earmarked for schools and roads, but the county can use PILT monies for other priorities.

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Current legislation in Congress would reauthorize SRS. In the past, Congress has chosen to offer retroactive SRS payments to counties when there has been a lapse in funding.

Even with those monies, Ravalli County Road Administrator John Horat said there may not be enough funding to reconstruct the portion of Wildfowl Lane coming out of Stevensville.

“We’ve gone past the point of that road just being overlaid,” he said. “We are looking at a reconstruction at this point.”

“The pavement is coming apart,” Chilcott said. “It’s hard to patch crumbling pavement.”

Asphalt currently costs between $90,000 to $100,000 mile.

Chilcott said there is about a mile and a half of road that needs work on the Stevensville end of Wildfowl Lane.

“We can’t afford to do that,” Chilcott said. “We’re listening to people and exploring our options.

One of those options includes milling up the pavement, mixing those millings with gravel and reapplying it to the road surface. Chilcott said in the spring, the county would prep it and apply magnesium chloride for dust abatement.

“We are going to have to make some hard decisions on where to put the money that we have for roads,” Chilcott said. “That’s going to be based on trips per day on the road and the condition of the road surface. We will have to prioritize it using hard data.”