OVANDO - When it comes to a summer Sunday in Montana, the list of things to do is seemingly endless.

David Kronner could have chosen to sleep in. He could have gone mountain biking or inner-tubing or swimming at the lake.

Instead, the 12-year-old decided to join his mother, Heather, and volunteer with the Five Valleys Land Trust to help restore the banks of Rock Creek, which flows into the North Fork of the Blackfoot River.

The idea sounded so good, Kronner's 9-year-old sister, Sarah, and his father, Kevin, came, too.

"All these trees we've come to help water and take care of will help keep the river clean for trout," Kronner explained. "My dad and I like fishing and it's nice to help keep the fish alive by doing something to help improve where they live."

That was the whole point for the caravan of 20-some volunteers who arrived at the Sundance Ranch early Sunday morning to nourish the thousands of plants - more than 6,000 some native trees and shrubs - that have been planted along the creek.

The project is in the heart of a 700-acre ranch that was purchased and turned into a conservation easement by a Missoula family before the land was sold off in subdivided housing lots, said Alina Niklison, stewardship manager for FVLT.

Rock Creek, which winds its way through the property, happens to be critical spawning grounds and habitat for cutthroat trout and bull trout. Over the decades, its banks have degraded due to livestock over-grazing and erosion, causing parts of the creek to be choked by sediment and other sections to be without necessary protective shade for aquatic life.

Restoration efforts supported by a multi-agency collaboration on that stretch of creek have been under way since 2003, starting with the planting of 2,000-some willow cuttings, Niklison said. In 2008, 5,000 more plants, representing 16 different native species - including aspen, dogwood, chokecherry, and cottonwood trees - were planted with contributions from such organizations as Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks, the Montana Department of Natural Resources, and Trout Unlimited.

"A lot of people think your work is done when you plant trees and spend all these resources in reclaiming a river or creek," Niklison said. "But you really need to follow through for three to four years and see how the plants are responding and help them.

"It's the stewardship and maintenance work that is critical - and we couldn't do that without all of these volunteers."

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Wearing river sandals and ready for a day of getting wet and hot, the volunteers carefully ambled up the creek with buckets, watering seedlings and securing the protective wiring around each plant.

Each hand, each bent back at work helping to nourishing the young life brought a smile to Niklison's face.

"We can't do this work alone," she said. "There are many hands and many groups that make this possible."

Although much of the restoration work is made possible through volunteer labor, everyone involved with the project is motivated by the tangible benefits.

Aside from spending time in a stunningly beautiful landscape, positive results are seen year to year.

"It is so empowering to see all these shrubs and trees that we've been taking care of thrive," Niklison said. "It's a powerful thing to give the land the opportunity to come back, to see the number of trout going up and to have cleaner water."

Carol McQuade could have spent her weekend at a reunion in Red Lodge, but instead she chose to lend a hand to help the land.

"I've always been a member of Five Valleys Land Trust," said the restoration volunteer. "I feel their work is important- and all of this important for our land.

"We have impinged on it in so many ways. That fact that we can heal it is very important to me and I feel deeply about that."

Reporter Betsy Cohen can be reached at 523-5253 or at bcohen@missoulian.com.

 

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