Shortly after Gavin Ricklefs starts walking south of Hamilton’s River Park, he scares up a couple of white-tailed deer while listening to the “tap, tap tap tap, tap” of a nearby woodpecker. The fresh snow muffles the sound of his feet, while also displaying the hoof prints of an elk herd that can be seen in the distance. As he rounds a bend in the Bitterroot River, he pauses to watch a raft of ducks floating in the stream, and smiles.
Ricklefs is the executive director of the Bitter Root Land Trust, which has partnered with the city of Hamilton to turn this 70-acre stretch of riverfront property into a new city park, ensuring that the scene unfolding before him will be enjoyed by future generations. It will double the River Park's size while providing more than two miles of continuous riverfront trails for the community to explore.
“This will be an incredible community asset for a long, long time,” Ricklefs said. “It’s a place where you can connect with nature, wet a line, take a walk, see wildlife in the shadows of the Bitterroot range, and listen to the sounds of the flowing river — all within walking distance from downtown businesses, schools and neighborhoods.”
It’s a project that’s been 10 years in the making. When Ricklefs started with the land trust nine years ago, they had some conversations with the property's owner, John Christmann, but the timing wasn’t quite right. Then, about one and a half years ago, they struck up a conversation again.
“To his credit, he is selling to us at half of the appraised value,” Ricklefs said. “We are fortunate to be able to work with somebody to get this into the community’s ownership.”
But — and it’s a pretty big but — the land trust has to come up with the funding to pay for the property. They’re doing well so far, having raised about $160,000, but they need another $550,000.
“It’s going to be a big challenge; it’s a little different project than we typically do, which usually are conservation easements, not whole property acquires,” Ricklefs said. “But we have done this before with the Steve Powell Park.
“This is definitely a stepped up risk due to the size — this is about three times as large — but the opportunity is here.”
Grant Carlton, the land trust’s conservation projects manager, said initial support for the purchase came from several private foundations, including the LOR (Livability, Opportunity, Responsibility) Foundation. That group is dedicated to improving the quality of life in the Intermountain West through locally driven solutions.
“Locally, the Ravalli County Fish and Wildlife Association has been an early supporter of this project as it conserves important fisheries and wildlife habitat,” Carlton added. "We’re very thankful for their partnership.”
The Conservation Fund also is playing a critical role, having partnered with the land trust to provide financing.
“They were able to respond quickly to our opportunity to purchase this land and provided a creative financial arrangement that gives us the time to raise the money needed to make this project possible,” Carlton added.
The plan is to raise the rest of the money within the next 12 to 18 months, then turn the land over to the city of Hamilton to manage. Ricklefs expects the city may put in a few trails, but for the most part it will remain a quiet, undeveloped natural area that provides solitude for both critters and humans.
Mayor Dominic Farrenkopf said the project has the full support of the city council, including his predecessor, Mayor Jerry Steele.
“What it means for the public is more access to our wonderful Bitterroot River,” Farrenkopf said. “This will preserve something unique, not only for Hamilton residents but for visitors, who all can access the river.
“We are preserving this for generations of people to come. It’s a good, collaborative effort to preserve access to land and the river.”
Ricklefs added that it’s not often that riverfront land this close to downtown areas becomes available, and parks and trails like this provide a catalyst for thriving communities while contributing to the economy, the vitality and the quality of life.
“There will be very few communities statewide that have such a vast amount of open space within walking distance to downtown businesses,” he said. “Folks who live, work and play in Hamilton will have a vibrant, publicly accessible river corridor to enjoy for generations to come.”