PILTZVILLE – When Chuck Erickson first bought his 49 acres on the banks of the Clark Fork River east of Missoula in 1980, the place was a bit of an environmental disaster.
Knapweed was everywhere. An island between two river channels was covered chest-high in another weed, tansy. Scrap metal and junk were scattered all over the Piltzville property, and yearly floods washed sediment downstream.
Now, 35 years later, Chuck and his wife Mary have transformed the place into an ecological Eden.
The tansy has been replaced with 25-foot-tall willows and towering cottonwoods, providing habitat for beavers, foxes, moose, muskrats, coyotes, woodpeckers, owls and countless other species.
The knapweed and rocks have been transformed into a mulched pasture, where the Ericksons raise heritage Hereford cattle, horses and hay.
The riverbank has been stabilized, so it holds steady during high water.
The Ericksons have restored a vibrant riparian habitat that benefits the watershed and the fishery for the whole community.
“In the early days, it seems like people fought nature,” Mary explained. “Now, I think we have learned to work with nature.”
On Friday, the couple was presented with the 2015 Land Stewardship Award by the Missoula County commissioners, an honor that recognizes landowners and residents who take management of land and water seriously.
“The Ericksons have been active stewards of their land and the Clark Fork River for decades,” said Commissioner Bill Carey. “The work they have done to combat weeds and restore the health of the river has benefited a far larger area than just their property. This is the first time the award has drawn attention to the work being done in this area, and it is fitting that the recipients are a couple who has done so much for their community.”
The duo has spent countless hours mowing and burning weeds, planting native species like dogwood and removing debris.
“When I first got the place, I wanted it to be as close to natural as I could get,” Chuck explained. “And the invasive plants just took over. And so I started learning what I could about weed management and just tried to take care of it. The river does what it wants. I've learned a lot about nature."
Kali Becher, a rural landscape scientist with the county’s Community and Planning Services, said the couple has restored their land to its natural state.
“Really, they have just been exemplary stewards,” she said. “They’ve hosted tours on their property, and they encourage their neighbors to teach people what it means to be good stewards.”
Becher said that because so many valleys and river bottoms are privately owned, the owners have a big say in protecting the ecosystem.
“Often when we think about natural resource management, we do just think about public land that’s being managed and public agencies, and even though that’s a large part of the county, a lot of river corridors are private property, and that means there is a huge role to play and huge role is being played by property owners in managing those natural resources,” she said. “They’re really different ecosystems because they are often lowlands and valleys and riparian areas that are different from forests and mountains, which are mostly public land. That’s a generalization, but when you look at a land ownership map, you can definitely see the differences.”
Becher said private lands need to be protected just like public lands because everything is connected.
“We’re all connected through rivers upstream and downstream or landscape level through wildlife and plants,” she said. “None of those organisms understand boundaries. Ownership doesn’t matter to them. Basically, to have a connected landscape it takes an all-lands approach in order to have a healthy thriving environment. It’s all hands on deck. Everybody needs to be a part of that solution.”
For their part, Mary Erickson said they didn't do the work to seek glory.
"It's strange for us to get this award because we're just doing what we've always done," she said.