The role of trees and shrubs in the health of rivers and streams, and the life they harbor, may not seem obvious but cannot be understated. Vegetation next to waterways absorbs pollution, prevents sediment from choking out sunlight and provides shade that keeps the water cool enough for fish and other aquatic life.

There are portions of the Bitterroot River, the lifeblood of the valley, that are in dire need of vegetative resuscitation. That’s why this Sunday, the Bitterroot Water Forum – along with what they hope is a sizeable contingent of volunteers – will be planting 5,000 feet of riverbank along the East Fork of the Bitterroot River with native vegetation.

“If you have ever driven south on Highway 93 to where the road begins to run parallel to the East Fork of the Bitterroot River, you have probably noticed how close the highway is to the river and how few plants there are in the space between,” said Heather Mullee, executive director the Bitterroot Water Forum. “This proximity to the road and the lack of vegetation has led to increased sediment in the water and increasing stream temperatures in the East Fork.”

In 2011, the BRWF partnered with local environmental consultants to design a plan addressing the sediment and temperature impairments on the East Fork. Sunday’s endeavor will be the third in a series of five events aimed at planting native vegetation on the riverbank.

“It’s a great time,” Mullee said. “We are looking to get a lot of volunteers to come help us out on Sunday. Last time we had a volunteer day was a huge success. We had over 35 volunteers come out to the last couple of projects. We provide lunch to our volunteers, and people have fun helping to protect and restore the area.”

Volunteers will be planting a variety of native plants, including willows, cottonwoods and serviceberries that will become a natural resource for generations to come.

The BRWF completed the first restoration project in October 2011, the second in April 2012, and they are on pace to finish the remaining projects in the spring and fall of 2013. The projects have been made possible in part by mini-grants from the Bitterroot Chapter of Trout Unlimited, the Soil and Water Conservation Districts of Montana Inc, and a newly formed partnership with the Montana Department of Transportation.

“People who live in the valley and rely on our rivers and streams for recreational pursuits recognize the importance of keeping our water clean and our watershed healthy,” Mullee said. “That’s why we had immediate support from groups like the Bitterroot Chapter of Trout Unlimited and the Fly Fishers of the Bitterroot. Now that we have two successful projects on the ground, the Department of Transportation can see the value of revegetation projects along their highway and they are working with us to complete the remaining projects.”

According to Mullee, revegetation is the process in which disturbed lands are replanted and the soils are rebuilt. In this case, she said, it involves installing native plants complete with “browse protectors” (rigid plastic that surrounds the plants to ward off wildlife) and surrounding them with healthy soil to create a supportive environment for plants to thrive.

“Revegetation can restore wildlife habitat and improve stream health,” she explained. “Because increasing temperatures and sedimentation are the main impairments to the East Fork, a vegetated buffer between the highway and the road would likely contribute to a reduction in stream temperatures through shading and function as a sediment trap, thereby reducing the amount of sediment delivered directly to the stream. These actions will ultimately help improve wildlife habitat and the overall health of the stream.”

The restoration project will be from noon until 4 p.m. on Sunday. There will be a carpool meeting at the Safeway in Hamilton at 11:15 a.m., and the project is just a few miles south of the Sula Store off of Highway 93 at mile marker 15.

The BRWF will provide lunch, water and warm beverages to volunteers. Anyone who wishes to come along is asked to dress warmly and bring gloves, sturdy boots for rocky terrain and a five-gallon bucket if you have one.

For questions or to RSVP, contact Heather at 375-2272 or brwaterforum@bitterroot.net.

Reach reporter David Erickson at 363-3300 or david.erickson@ravallirepublic.com.

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