ROCK CREEK – It takes more than volunteers to run a successful volunteer cleanup.
“You’ve got to think about how you put together a successful day,” said University of Montana Forestry Wildland Restoration Program director Cara Nelson. “Some people come because they want to learn skills or tools. Some want to meet people. Some feel an imperative to fix the environment they live in. You’ve got to think about the ecological aspects, but there are also these social and human dimensions.”
At the Five Valleys Land Trust property along the confluence of Rock Creek and the Clark Fork River, that meant making sure everyone had safety glasses to wear and enough bagels to snack on during a Saturday morning work session. About 35 people, some from as far as East Helena and Jackson Hole, Wyo., pitched in to get the land ready for rehabilitation.
FVTL acquired the 201-acre property in December, heading off a controversial housing development along one of the state’s most popular trout streams. Its $1.6 million cost came together with help from Missoula County’s Open Space Fund, the Rock Creek Trust, Montana Fish and Wildlife Conservation Trust, Trout Unlimited, Resources Legacy Fund and private donors.
But getting is only part of having. To transform the land from a subdivision to a prairie, lots of new and old additions had to go.
A 9-acre excavation that was supposed to become a decorative pond formed the biggest challenge. The developers piled topsoil from the pond pit into a berm along Rock Creek Road. That dirt must be moved back.
Before that, though, Saturday’s volunteers like Christina Hopkins, Jody Pace and Sydney Tuss raided the pond’s willow thickets for transplantable shoots. They clipped willow branches into 2-foot-long sticks which can be stabbed into the banks of the Clark Fork River where cattle eroded away all the riparian habitat. Within a season, those sticks may produce new thickets to hold the bank together.
A little ways away, Kai Karstens was tugging up swaths of black plastic slit fencing that outlined where some of the future houses might have gone. Others hauled out strands of rusty barbed wire, toppled fence posts and leftovers from the property’s ranching past.
UM Wildland Restoration Program student Natasha Boote was part of the team that organized the work day. In addition to helping list what needed to get done, she was also in charge of wrangling enough food and drink for the volunteers.
“Our goal is to quantify how degraded the site is, so we can design the restoration plans,” Boote said. “It’s a long-term project.”
The students have already won a Montana Department of Natural Resources $500 grant to pay for field trips and volunteer supplies to the site. That’s also given them the groundwork to apply for a $15,000 DNRC grant which would pay for 10 years of restoration.
In addition to backfilling the pond, FVLT wants to remove some old roadbeds, replace noxious weeds with native prairie grasses, and improve the property’s habitat for birds and animals. While the property abuts the mouth of Rock Creek, FVLT stewardship manager Ryan Chapin said the organization wants to go slow on designing public access to that sensitive area.
For now, the bulk of the property west of Rock Creek Road is closed to public access while the heavy restoration work takes place. But a bit of land on the east side of the road will become a new Clark Fork River access after another volunteer work session next weekend.
“We’ve got it set up for a Field and Stream ‘Hero for a Day’ project,” Chapin said. “One of the neighbors is offering the use of a backhoe, so we can make a four-car parking area and a walk-in river access. This is the first tangible restoration we’ve been able to do.”
Five Valley Land Trust’s next “Hands on the Land” river access volunteer project takes place on May 4 starting at 10 a.m. For more information, see www.fvlt.org.