A new fishing access site and boat ramp across from Riverfront Park near the South Billings Boulevard Bridge opened to the public Friday.
The development of the Blue Creek Fishing Access was overseen primarily by nonprofits Our Montana and the Yellowstone River and Parks Association. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks will be responsible for maintenance of the property.
The Yellowstone River is running high, and Our Montana Executive Director Dana Lariviere urged people to take safety issues seriously and have "the proper knowledge and proper equipment" if they use the new site.
"I'm not one to go bash Walmart," Lariviere said. "But it's not something you should use a Walmart raft for."
An official opening celebration for the site is planned for later this summer when conditions along the river are safer, she said.
The first group to use the ramp last week was the Billings Fire Department. Battalion Chief Ed Regele said crews have begun familiarizing themselves with the new boat ramp and monitoring conditions in the river.
"It's running extremely high," he said, adding that generally the Yellowstone is "a dangerous river."
Even with the Billings Fire Department equipment, if the river is filled with dangerous debris and conditions are risky, crews are not always able to launch a river rescue.
In all, from purchase of the land, construction costs and other fees, the project cost about $500,000, according to Lariviere.
The development of the 15.13-acre parcel is one of several projects that have taken shape since May 2018 with funding from the Yellowstone River Recreation Plan, a course of action for developing recreational opportunities along the Yellowstone River.
The plan is funded by $2.3 million from ExxonMobil, an amount the organization agreed to pay for lost recreation opportunities after a pipeline rupture in 2011 spilled 63,000 gallons of oil into the Yellowstone River near Laurel.
The Yellowstone River Recreation Plan outlines funding for various projects. Input for the projects came from a combination of feedback from public and private groups reviewed by a committee made up of representatives from Billings, Laurel, Yellowstone County and the office of Montana Gov. Steve Bullock.
Committee members were approved by Gov. Steve Bullock's office, and the group was overseen by the Montana Department of Justice's Natural Resources Damage Program.
The Yellowstone River Recreation Plan recommended $160,000 in funding for the fishing access and boat ramp project. The nonprofit Our Montana applied for the funding. The balance came from grants, Lariviere said. YRPA supplied $124,000 for purchase of the property. An additional $100,000 for purchase came from a Canyon Ferry Foundation grant written by YRPA's Darryl Wilson.
The contractor for the site was A-Concrete.
Before contractors started, a group of volunteers descended on the site in January to clear vegetation including invasive Russian Olive trees.
Heavy spring rains caused some delay to the site's opening. There has also already been vandalism to the property. Someone drove a vehicle around the site before it opened, tearing up the ground "spinning donuts."
"When you see people destroy and vandalize it, it's heartbreaking because you spend so much time on this project," Lariviere said.
The site offers what Lavriere described as a much-needed addition to access along the Yellowstone River in Billings.
"This is a gold mine. This is something we needed in Billings. We don't have proper access to have proper recreation on the river, and that has been an ongoing problem," she said.