Stevensville fishing access
Perry Backus - Ravalli Republic

Warren Buffett is known to have said “Someone’s sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago.” Benjamin Franklin once said, “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.”

Those are two of my favorite quotes about the value of planning for the future. As citizens of a still young nation, we owe it to future generations to think about what kind of country we will pass on to them. Will we plant a tree so that they have some shade to sit under when they need it, or will there be no tree at all because we said we can’t afford it, it’s too hard, or because we can’t agree on what kind of tree to plant?

That is what came to mind when I recently visited the Bitterroot River. At the Stevensville Bridge, I saw for the first time signs announcing that the area between the River Park road and the river will be closed to the public on June 15. The riverside area, where people from all over the county, state, and probably the nation have played for decades, will no longer be available as a place to enjoy with family and friends on a hot summer day. While there, a stranger asked me what I knew about the situation. I told him the facts, as best I know them. However, I didn’t say what I was thinking: “Instead of facing even less access to the river, why aren’t we preparing for the grand opening of an even bigger park there instead?”

The unnecessary conflict around this area could be a great case study of what happens when an area increases in population and our government has not planned ahead to provide the needed services and facilities a larger population requires. As citizens, we have not demanded that the state or the county do the planning needed to ensure the kind of valley we enjoy today will be there for our children tomorrow. We think that just because we have access to certain lands today or that we think the valley is a great place to live because it’s scenic, or it’s quiet, or that it’s dark; it will always be this way.

To my knowledge the county is not planning to ensure that the valley we all love today will resemble anything like it in the future. Is there any transportation planning occurring in our valley? Is anyone thinking about available and clean water for the next 100,000 residents? Will our children be able to bicycle safely to and from school?

Unless we plan a different future, we are on the same trajectory to become just like all those other places from which many valley residents escaped to live here.

In my opinion, the controversy surrounding the Stevensville Fishing Access site stems from the fact that the recreation needs of the Bitterroot Valley are not being met by either the county or the state. Public property, above the high-water mark that can be accessed and enjoyed for activities other than fishing, is almost non-existent in the Bitterroot Valley. Although we are fortunate the state has a source of funding to develop fishing access sites for launching a boat into the river; fishing access sites are not parks. They do not fulfill the space or facilities needs required by more intense or other recreational uses. Fishing access sites are only part of the solution of providing sufficient recreation facilities for the public.

Unfortunately, our county does not have adequate resources nor the political will to participate in comprehensive recreation planning for the future - nor should it shoulder the entire job since our rivers are state resources and people from all over the state, nation, and world come to Montana to recreate. From my perspective, one way to “plant a tree for shade in the future” would be to enable and strengthen our State’s Park’s Division. As evidenced by the discussions during this last legislative session, not only is the Park’s Division not able to maintain the parks we have, but they also do not have the capacity and resources necessary to provide the professional recreation services needed at the state level to prepare for or respond to future recreation needs. The Montana State Parks Division needs our help. Our State Park’s Division could be the leader in bringing all levels of government together to develop a strategy to ensure that we have adequate recreation facilities to meet everyone’s future needs on the Bitterroot River.

In the face of ever competing demands on our water resources and an increasing demand for recreation access to our rivers, shouldn’t we be working together to improve the future and overall availability of recreation opportunities along the Bitterroot River and around the valley?

If we want a park where families can play along the Bitterroot River, we have to plan for it today.

– Margaret Gorski,

Stevensville

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