Michael Ash doesn’t have to worry about homework for his class at Missoula College this semester.
Of course, class lasts eight hours a day – outdoors in rain or sleet or snow – and not paying attention could get you killed. But he will leave a huge mark on the community in the form of a new riverfront park.
“It makes you feel like you have to get something done,” Ash said on a break from his D3K bulldozer on top of 3,000 yards of dirt near the California Street Bridge. “It’s got deadlines.”
The Deer Lodge resident was one of 16 students getting a major resume boost while helping the city of Missoula develop the future Silver Park. The 7.5-acre site they were working on used to be part of a major sawmill that closed in the late 1980s.
“We were trying to figure out ways to reuse some of the soils, doing whatever it took to get prices down,” said Chris Behan, assistant director of the Missoula Redevelopment Agency. “There was enough savings using those guys to do the soils work that we could actually make the park work out.”
The park site is half-covered in mounds of topsoil collected from other projects, especially the adjacent job – building a new stretch of Wyoming Street between Ogren-Allegiance Park and California Street. The students stage the dirt by a separating machine that sifts out the rocks and garbage and piles clean dirt in a mound taller than a two-story building. This eventually will be used to support trees and other landscaping in the park.
They’re also uncovering leftover mill remains, such as blocks of concrete, old iron tanks and unidentifiable refuse. Behan said the occasional surprises make the project that much more realistic for the class.
“It’s what happens when you find a concrete foundation that hadn’t been identified,” Behan said. “It gives the students opportunities to become better potential employees. They’re part of the solution.”
Missoula College heavy equipment instructor Rod Frost said this will be the capstone of the class’ second and final semester.
“It’s called job simulation, but on this one we could call it job reality,” Frost said. “It’s not like the normal college schedule.”
The students excavated more than 150 yards of wood chips from the former log yard, which will be mixed with the soil to improve its drainage. Into the holes, they backfilled shattered hunks of concrete that will eventually be covered with landscaping.
They also get experience budgeting fuel for a major job site, working with much bigger equipment than the college usually can muster. The city government covers the costs of renting the bulldozers, dump trucks, separator and excavators as well as the fuel.
“You have a year of experience right when you get out,” said Missoula student Andrew Stacy. “And you can tell them you know how to run a screener – we don’t usually get to do that.”
“We’re going to have moved 30,000 yards of material when we’re done,” added Stevensville student Sam Lubbers. “That’s plenty of experience. And who wants to be sitting in class when you can be out here, messing with oversized Tonka trucks?”