Katie Racette searched the bank of Lolo Creek for red or yellow flags and turned to a group of teenagers when she found one.
“This marks that we planted a thin-leaf alder right here,” she said to juniors and seniors from Florence-Carlton High School’s Rocky Mountain ecology class on Wednesday. “And here it is! It’s alive!”
With the help of volunteers — including Florence-Carlton High School students — the Clark Fork Coalition and the Lolo Watershed Group planted more than 1,000 plants along 840 feet of Lolo Creek in April 2016 as part of an effort to restore riparian habitats razed by the 2013 Lolo Creek complex fire. Vanessa Hafich’s Rocky Mountain ecology class returned to the sites later that summer and again on Wednesday to survey their work.
“Take your time and do a good job,” Racette reminded one group. “Because this is data we’re using for real.”
The restoration project was funded by a grant from the Montana Department of Environmental Quality. That project includes reporting requirements to ensure the work was completed, to gauge the success of spending and to inform future conservation decisions for the area.
When the fire burned trees and shrubs, some of the banks started to erode and more sediment flowed downstream. Conservationists hope that by adding more native plants to the area, they can slow that damage to fish habitat and boost the recovery of a riverside green belt that would normally shelter a variety of birds and other wildlife.
On Wednesday, most of the area along Lolo Creek was covered only in thin strips of shade cast by the blackened trunks of dead trees.
After safety discussions, the teenagers broke up into several groups that spread out along Lolo Creek. They counted which trees and shrubs planted by previous students thrived and which died. As classmates identified each one, they would call out their names and condition for Jones to write down.
“One alder. Dead.”
“Got it,” Lane shouted back.
“One (willow) stick. Alive.”
They also waded into the creek.
Jesse Squires, 18, stood on the bank with a clipboard, writing down observations by Carson Whitfield, 18, standing in the water below. Using a measuring tape and tennis ball, they measured the speed of the water.
Earlier, Jones held a net underwater while a classmate kicked up mud, hoping to net insects. Back on shore, they divided a large bucket of muddy stream water into white ice cube trays and used magnifying glasses to identify the bugs in each section.
Racette said the coalition likes to incorporate students into their conservation work.
“It helps kids take some responsibility and ownership over what’s going on in their own backyard,” she said. “And it’s also a learning tool to understand natural resource management and watershed science.”
Many of the students were happy to be out of the classroom on a warmer fall day, especially after wildfire smoke trapped them indoors for the final weeks of summer. Lane Jones, 16, said she liked the opportunity to apply their lessons to a real-world situation, especially one that felt so familiar after wildfires burned much of the lower Bitterroot valley.
“The Bitterroot National Forest is pretty and with the fire that came through, a lot of it burned. Some of it’s not going to grow on its own,” she said. “So it’s great we’re helping out (in Lolo National Forest) because really we are responsible for the environment. We’re responsible for everything. We’re here to help what we live on grow up so it’ll produce more oxygen and be healthier and regenerate the earth.”