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Rattlesnake Elementary School fifth-graders Floyd Stevens, Rowan Haywood and Ben Littman-Roeder soak a new sapling they planted along Rattlesnake Creek on Tuesday. The classmates were helping reforest a popular walking area along the creek.

While professional gardeners at the PEAS Farm bustled about their spring chores Tuesday, an entirely different level of gardening was taking place along Rattlesnake Creek, 15 feet below.

“This could use a bit more soil,” Clark Fork Coalition outreach coordinator Ellie Rial told a group of Rattlesnake Elementary School boys gathered around a foot-deep hole. “They need to be covered over their roots so they have a fighting chance.”

“We’re gonna need some more dirt,” Jackson Pelger called to his crew as he scraped the remains of his excavation into the hole. Apparently, a bit of the material got redistributed in typical fifth-grade-boy fashion.

“Maybe we should take some from our ‘abandon ship’ one,” Taylor Thomas responded, referring to a nearby digging attempt that produced more rocks than dirt.

The boys were all students in Suzy Archibald-Wilson’s class at Rattlesnake, and have been studying how to restore this bit of their namesake creek all year. Last fall, they spent afternoons pulling weeds out of the popular walking area between the community farm and the creek.

“They’re learning stewardship of the land,” Archibald-Wilson said. “It just makes me so proud to see them out here doing it.”

The effort extends one of the Missoula Parks and Recreation Department’s best-ever spring volunteer turnouts, according to city conservation lands manager Morgan Valliant. The 30 cottonwoods, willows, chokecherries and other trees they planted are among 2,500 that volunteers have helped place this year.

“This has been our busiest spring ever,” Valliant said. “Suzy contacted us looking for projects close to school that would engage her students about watersheds. The Clark Fork Coalition was also working on this planting. And we’ve got neighborhood folks engaged in watering the new plants. It certainly helps us do our job.”

The goal is to restore as much of the Rattlesnake Creek riparian area to a natural vegetative state, after decades of passing development allowed many places to become weed-infested. Planting native species will also help stabilize the soils along the bank and provide better wildlife cover.

“These kids bring a lot of background knowledge,” Archibald-Wilson said. “They live close to the mountains, and their parents take them outside a lot. Last fall, they pulled a ton of houndstongue. I’m curious to see if they can identify it in the spring, without the stems and seeds.”

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.