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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
News >  Idaho

Hiawatha trail up for new contract

Business opportunity: guaranteed income operating popular bike trail in one of America’s prettiest spots. You provide the workers. Federal agency handles major upkeep. Estimated revenues of $200,000 or more.

That’s the gist of a 77-page prospectus issued recently by the U.S. Forest Service in its quest for bids to operate and maintain the Route of the Hiawatha bicycle trail, which follows the old Milwaukee Road rail line crossing the Montana-Idaho border. Every five years the agency is required by law to open up the trail contract for new bids, said Dave O’Brien, spokesman for the Idaho Panhandle National Forests.

“We’re not doing this because of any dissatisfaction with the current operator,” O’Brien said.

Lookout Pass ski area has run the trail under a special use permit from the Forest Service since the 15-mile rails-to-trails route opened in 1998. The ski area will reapply for the contract, said Lookout’s owner, Phil Edholm. “It’s been a privilege for us to be the operator of the Hiawatha Trail. With our experience, we’re certainly highly interested in continuing to operate it.”

The trail crosses some of the steepest terrain in the Bitterroot Mountains, but a series of tunnels and trestles built for the now-bankrupt railroad make the one-way journey a cinch for most cyclists. The route features one tunnel that’s nearly 2 miles long and pitch-dark for most of the ride. The trestles, including several that are more than 500 feet long, allow visitors to glide high above the forest canopy.

“There’s no other experience anywhere else in the country like this,” O’Brien said.

Each national forest has a feature or two that draws visitors, O’Brien said. The world’s largest trees grow in the Sequoia National Forest. Mount St. Helen’s towers above the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. Grizzly bears, wolves and cougars roam the Gallatin National Forest.

“This forest hangs its hat on the Hiawatha,” O’Brien said.

Initially, however, the Forest Service didn’t know what to do with the bankrupt railroad ground. Some worried the tunnels were a safety hazard and suggested blasting them shut. Others mentioned growing mushrooms in the dank spaces. The notion of a bike trail was pushed by Jim Fowler, a former owner of Lookout Pass, and Forest Service employee Jamie Schmidt, O’Brien said.

For the past three years, about 20,000 people have visited the trail, according to the Forest Service. This year, ridership is expected to exceed 22,000 before the trail closes for the season Oct. 2, Edholm said.

Although the trail’s beauty speaks for itself, it’s taken a Web site, brochures and considerable marketing to get the word out about the trail, Edholm said. The ski area also rents bicycles and offers a $9 shuttle ride for those not interested in a roundtrip visit.

“We’ve worked hard to make the trail as best it can be,” he said.

A panel of Forest Service employees will evaluate bid proposals for operating the trail and make a recommendation to Forest Supervisor Ranotta McNair, O’Brien said. The agency wants to make sure the operator has a good business track record, an affordable fee structure and will properly care for the publicly owned trail.

The operator must pay the Forest Service at least $13,000 annually for the right to operate the trail concession, and must agree to conduct a long list of regular maintenance tasks, including weed control and ditch cleaning. The contract holder must also provide toilets that are “clean and free of objectionable odor,” according to the prospectus, which is filled with detailed descriptions of other federal laws pertaining to trail operations.

Because the trail has gained a national reputation – including being featured in cycling and travel magazines – O’Brien said he wouldn’t be surprised if national companies seek the contract. The agency’s prospectus mentions that gross income from the trail could be more than $200,000 annually, but the document also points out, “The Forest Service does not guarantee a profitable operation.”

Applications for the five-year contract must be received at the Idaho Panhandle National Forests office by Oct. 15.

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