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A True Trail Blazer


Sometimes inspiration comes at the strangest times. For Gene Townsend, it happened when, as he puts it, he had “a change in lifestyle.”

“Wife kicked me out,” he recalls, laughing.

It was the mid-1990s, and finding himself with some free time, Townsend decided to take up walking in his hometown of Three Forks, Mont.

“I started to walk up and down the streets, just to get exercise, and I thought, ‘Well, this is boring,’” he recalls, adding that he eventually gravitated toward the nearby roads. “Once you start walking, you notice so many different things. You notice the muskrats in the ponds, you notice the beavers. … I thought, ‘Gee wiz, why don’t we work on getting some trails in?’”

So Townsend got to work, eventually receiving a grant to start work on a trail. Although the money wasn’t a lot, it was enough to get a trail started.

Three Forks certainly has the scenery for bicycle and running trails. Located in the watershed valley system of the Missouri and Mississippi river drainage basins, Three Forks is considered the birthplace of the Missouri River.

Eventually Townsend was able to oversee construction of eight and a half miles of trails in the city. Now mayor of Three Forks, Townsend continues to work to expand the trails, aiming to eventually build a countywide trail system that connects his town to nearby Bozeman, Mont.

The Three Forks trails are extremely popular, attracting a number of bicyclists, joggers and walkers, Townsend says. Many people even drive down from Bozeman to use the trails in the winter, as Three Forks doesn’t get as much snow as the rest of the state.

“This weekend we finally had some nice weather. It was 80 yesterday. The trails were covered, there were just people everywhere, walking and jogging,” Townsend says. “So they are popular, and people do use them, and I get lots of compliments on them.”

Along with providing a nice place for people who already exercise to stay in shape, the trails serve as a place for young people to get active. A portion of the trail connects directly to the local high school’s track and field oval, so the cross country team can use the trail in their training. Other teams also use the trails as part of their training regimen.

Students in lower grades walk the trails to learn about nature. Townsend regularly hosts noontime “walks with the mayor” to help introduce youngsters to the trail. The walks “just get kids more active, and just get them of their sedentary lifestyle,” he says.

The city also worked hard to ensure the entire town feels a sense of ownership about the trails, Townsend notes. For example, one portion of the trail was constructed alongside an old state highway, which provided for some pretty boring scenery. So the builder created mounds of dirt to create a few hills, and the city started an “adopt a mound” program to allow people to decorate the mounds by picking out what kind of foliage to plant.

“People got pretty creative, and it turned out pretty neat,” Townsend recalls.

Now happily remarried, Townsend says he continues to find joy in the trail system he helped build. He’s also earned recognition for his efforts, including by being named recipient of the 2010 State Trail Advocacy Award during the 20th American Trails National Symposium.

“One of the things that bothered me when I first started, I kept saying to Pat, my wife, then my girlfriend: ‘What if we build it and nobody uses it?” Townsend recalls. “It really took off. … It is popular, and I think the more of them we build and the more opportunities we give to people, they’ll use them.”