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Pine Creek Lake. Photo by Walker Stole
Sep 06 2016

Towering Accomplishment

MWA restores historic Granite Butte Fire Lookout on the Continental Divide

Around MWA, Featured

The setting August sun lit up distant ridges and peaks across a hundred miles of the rugged Continental Divide on the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest. Ravens played on updrafts as people from Lincoln, Helena and Canyon Creek gathered to eat, enjoy windswept vistas, and toast a unique collaborative success.

On this day, the historic Granite Butte Fire Lookout, beautifully restored by volunteers for MWA’s CDT Montana program, was officially opened for public use and enjoyment as a Forest Service rental. In fact, a young family from Lincoln had the honor of staying at the lookout on the evening of our celebration – the first day it became available for public enjoyment.

Originally built in 1932, the lookout holds a commanding view from its perch atop the Continental Divide, between Helena and Lincoln. But over the years, the lookout had fallen into disrepair. When I walked this part of the divide in 2011, the lookout was in shambles, the trail nonexistent.

One year later, in 2012, MWA launched the CDT Montana program, a volunteer-fueled program that stewards the northern 1,000 miles of the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail (CDNST).

The Continental Divide Trail was the dream of Benton Mackaye, a close colleague of Bob Marshall. In 1966, Mackaye proposed a great trail linking wilderness areas, national forests, national monuments, and national parks along the spine of the Rockies. Designated by Congress in 1978, the CDNST is our nation’s longest mountain trail, stretching 3,100 miles from Mexico to Canada. The nature and purpose of the CDNST are to provide high-quality foot, horseback, and quiet recreation experiences and to conserve cultural, historic, and natural resources along its vast mountain corridor.

As the last standing fire lookout on the northern CDT, Granite Butte holds special historic and cultural significance. Working closely with the Lincoln Ranger District of the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest, MWA managed eight work projects to restore the lookout and build new trail north and south of Granite Butte.

The project involved a number of dedicated volunteers, including Mark Himmel, a Great Falls contractor and member of Charlie Russell Back Country Horsemen. Over the last two years, Mark spent weeks working tirelessly to restore the lookout. The district ranger, trail engineers, and recreation staff for the Lincoln Ranger District and Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest likewise devoted countless work hours to the success of the project.

Another key volunteer was Canyon Creek resident Connie Horder. Connie and her husband John contributed volunteer labor and funding to restore the lookout in honor of Connie’s late mother Jocelyn, who loved to visit the lookout. It was only fitting that Connie would be chosen to cut the ribbon and officially open Granite Butte as a Forest Service rental.

After the ribbon cutting, the U. S. Forest Service presented MWA with a framed plaque honoring us for leading the preservation of this historic structure. Lincoln resident Lisa Smith described the restoration work as “phenomenal.”

“This is a wonderful example of people working together,” she said. “We need more of this.”

Go to recreation.gov to rent Granite Butte.

There are many people who made the restoration of the Granite Butte Lookout possible – certainly too many to mention here. However, special thanks go to Shannon Freix, MWA’s CDT Montana program director since 2012.  Shannon brought people and partners together up and down the Montana section of the CDT. Granite Butte is just one of the many visible accomplishment from her work with MWA. Shannon resigned her position with MWA this year.  We’re grateful for Shannon’s dedicated work on behalf of MWA for Montana’s longest trail.

- John Gatchell, MWA public lands policy director