The city of Billings is considering leasing a 71-acre parcel of land along the Yellowstone River from the state of Montana.
The lease would not only extend the reach of the adjoining Riverfront Park complex, it would also provide an important link in the Marathon Loop, a 26-mile ring of trails that may one day form a circle around most of Billings.
The lease with the state comes up for a vote Monday night by the Billings City Council. The city has already leased the 79.5-acre Norm's Island and a neighboring parcel of 5.6 acres from the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.
That 10-year lease is up for renewal, and the city is proposing to expand it to include the 71-acre property known as Darling Island, which is just downstream of the eastern end of Riverfront Park.
The city owns most of Riverfront Park and administers all of it. The park extends from just west of South Billings Boulevard to just east of where the old Washington Street Bridge crossed the Yellowstone.
When combined with Norm's Island, the area is known as the Riverfront Park complex, and the complex could now grow larger with the addition of Darling Island.
The island was formerly known as Carla Island, and thanks to channel migration it is no longer even an island.
City officials want to build a bicycle and pedestrian trail across the property and then extend the trail system east from there.
That's where the Marathon Loop comes in.
The concept of the loop was hatched about five years ago, when the Billings Chamber of Commerce formally got involved in the promotion and construction of a trail system.
Nash Emrich, a longtime BikeNet member, mapped existing trails and found that a great ring around the city, with the gaps filled in, would be just about 26 miles long.
"It was kind of destiny to be the Marathon Loop," said John Brewer, the chamber president.
The loop would stretch along the top of the Rims and the banks of the river roughly from Shiloh Road to MetraPark. There are already gravel trails throughout Norm's Island and Riverfront Park, but there are no trails between Riverfront and Mystic Park, about a mile and a half downstream. From Mystic, the trail system continues to the top of the Rims through Swords Rimrock Park.
By adding the Darling Island parcel, that gap along the river would be a little nearer to being closed. More important, it would take the trail system to the edge of another parcel of private land that could provide a link between the river and Garden Avenue.
As explained by Bill Cole, chairman of the chamber's trail committee, the concerns of some property owners between Mystic and Riverfront parks make it impossible to continue the trail system entirely along the river between those two parks.
But if the city can work out an agreement with the property owner between Darling Island and Garden Avenue to grant a trail easement on the land — and negotiations are going well — most of the southern edge of the great loop would be in place.
"This has always been sort of the Holy Grail for the Marathon Loop," Cole said.
Part of the trail would have to be on-street along Garden. Mike Whitaker, the Parks Department director, acknowledges that would be less than ideal, but Garden Avenue is a relatively quiet road and would at least connect two segments of the loop, he said.
The city now leases Norm's Island and the 5.6-acre parcel from the DNRC for $1,275 a year, money that helps fund schools. The state is proposing the raise the lease on Norm's Island to $3,264 a year. If Darling Island is added to the 10-year lease, the total cost would be $5,990 a year.
As with Norm's Island, the city would be responsible for Darling Island, but much of the trail building and maintenance would be done by the nonprofit Yellowstone River Parks Association.
Whitaker said the state would most likely be willing to extend the lease indefinitely.
"It's a revenue source for the schools," he said. "So as long as we want to lease it, I think they'll be OK with with it."
There is one more small detail. If the city leases Darling Island, Brewer said, the trails committee hopes to rename it Clark's Crossing, in honor of the explorer Capt. William Clark.
On the return from the Pacific Ocean in 1806, Clark's party drove what remained of their horse herd across the river in the general vicinity of what is now Darling Island.