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Riverbank cleanup
Ned Derosier, a Missoula Parks and Recreation employee, works his way through the tangle of trees and brush along the Clark Fork River near downtown Missoula on Wednesday afternoon, removing the larger-diameter trees growing on the levee.
Photo by KURT WILSON/Missoulian

Army Corps of Engineers orders city of Missoula to remove trees to protect levee

On orders from the Army Corps of Engineers, city forestry crews will cut cottonwood trees and willows along the north bank of the Clark Fork River in downtown Missoula over the next few weeks.

Their purpose: flood control and maintenance of the levee built by the Army Corps in the 1960s to protect downtown businesses from high water.

When the levee was built, the city of Missoula signed an agreement with the Corps of Engineers promising to maintain the rip-rap along the river by keeping it free of larger-diameter trees and bushes, city forester Larry Maginnis said Wednesday.

In recent years, inspectors from the corps have complained about the city's lax maintenance and ordered the larger cottonwoods and willows removed. "They actually did a little finger-pointing," Maginnis said. One survey identified 1,000 cottonwoods to be cut along the Clark Fork.

A number of trees were cut two years ago, and more - all those over 4 inches in diameter - will be removed over the next few weeks. Most impacted will be the riverfront at Kiwanis Park, Bess Reed Park, Caras Park and west of the California Street Bridge.

"Unfortunately, it will be unsightly," Maginnis said as city foresters began the tree-cutting. "The operational part of it can be a shock."

But the Corps of Engineers is insistent that the levee be maintained; if high water loosened the larger trees, their root systems would take big bites out of the berm, he said. And the Corps has the ability to sue the city for shirking its agreed-upon duties, or it could refuse to help if a flood damaged the levee.

"The big kicker," Maginnis said, "is that the Federal Emergency Management Agency could redesignate the floodplain because of lack of maintenance, and many of the properties protected by the levee would then be in the floodplain."

Before the berms were built along the river, the Clark Fork River ran through what are now Bess Reed and Caras parks, and downtown streets were prone to flooding, he said. Afterward, the park land - and the city beyond - was high and dry.

The corps is particularly concerned about the levee in and around downtown because the Clark Fork flows against the berm in that area - probably trying to reclaim its historic channel, Maginnis said. The levee begins at the mouth of Hellgate Canyon and continues to the Russell Street Bridge.

This month's pruning will leave the smaller cottonwoods and willows along the water, he said. Everything removed will be chipped and recycled as mulch.

Reporter Sherry Devlin can be reached at 523-5268 or at sdevlin@missoulian.com

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