On a recent morning along the banks of the Bitterroot River, both the promise and the challenges of a proposed new city park just west of Hamilton were in full display on the bottom of Grant Carlton’s pants legs.
A large skwala nymph crawled up oneleg as the Bitter Root Land Trust’s land protection specialist stood along a reach of open riverbank that will eventually offer lots of room for future fly fishermen’s back casts. The waters flowing through the undercut bank at Carlton’s feet seemed the perfect hiding cover for trout waiting for more skwalas to appear.
His other leg sported several Velcro-like burrs from the one of the hundreds of houndstongue weeds scattered across the riverside meadow on the 70-acre parcel of prime riparian habitat that includes a mile-and-a-half stretch of the Bitterroot River.
“There is still a lot of work that needs to be accomplished before this will be ready to open up to the general public,” Carlton said.
Besides getting a handle on noxious weeds, a new bridge across a ditch needs to be constructed and some trail work completed.
Before all of that can even get started, the land trust still needs to raise about $30,000 to complete the acquisition phase of a project that, so far, has found lots of community support.
A little over a year and a half ago, The Conservation Fund stepped forward to provide the bridge financing the land trust needed to begin the acquisition process that required $730,000 of fundraising. Generous donations from individuals, private foundations, local and state conservation organizations, and Ravalli County’s Open Lands Program has raised about $700,000 of that total.
That fundraising effort included an event at the new park site last summer that raised about $150,000.
“It’s been amazing,” said Bitter Root Land Trust Executive Director Gavin Ricklefs. “The community has been so excited and supportive of this project in every way imaginable. There have been so many people who have not been connected with us before calling to ask, ‘How can I help?’”
“That has really validated our decision to move forward on this project,” Ricklefs said.
Members of the land trust began talks with the landowner over a decade ago. The situation was different back then. The landowner still owned land on both sides of the river and wasn’t ready to sell off the portion on the east side by itself.
“The land had been for sale for a little while,” Ricklefs said. “It was a great opportunity and the landowner was excited about its potential. … It finally got the point that it made sense and so we made the jump.”
“The fact the Christmanns were willing to sell the land to us at a discount was huge,” he said. “We all owe them a sincere thank you for their vision in seeing the value to have this in public ownership.”
In May, the Bitter Root Land Trust plans to launch its final fundraising push they hope will put the natural area adjacent to Hamilton’s River Park into public ownership. Plans call for the organization to host a number of events to help ensure that public knows about the opportunity of adding the new parkland.
“No contribution will be too small,” Ricklefs said. “We need for a whole bunch of people from the community to step forward and help however they can. With everyone’s help, we can make this real.”
Ricklefs said those making large donations have already stepped forward and offered their help. The call now focuses on the general public to help raise that final $30,000.
When the parkland is purchased and the necessary infrastructure projects completed, Ricklefs said the park will be turned over the City of Hamilton.
“They are willing to be the long-time owners and stewards of this property,” he said. “That partnership is crucial. We couldn’t have made this happen without the forward-looking visionary partners of the city.”
Hamilton Mayor Dominic Farrenkopf said responsible growth has always been high on his list for the community’s future.
“I think we are seeing a good balance of preserving the natural wonders of the Bitterroot Valley, while we grow economically,” Farrenkopf said. “The expansion of River Park, or the Skalkaho Bend project, is a perfect example of how we are preserving the beauty of the valley and guaranteeing access to one of our greatest gems, the Bitterroot River.
“The Bitter Root Land Trust has worked tirelessly on this project and we are hoping to see it to fruition very soon,” he said. “All of us are going to be able to access this park, and therefore directly benefit from it. It is now time for all of us to bring together our resources and put the proverbial cherry on top. I encourage all residents of the Bitterroot Valley to join together and contribute to this project.”
While the boundary lines between the town’s River Park and the proposed Skalkaho Bend are blurred, Ricklefs asked the public to be patient over the next few months as the land trust and city complete the process to make the park a safe place for visitors.
“We are encouraging people to be patient,” Ricklefs said. “We’re getting real close. This is going to be their park, but just not quite yet.”
If everything goes exactly as planned — for which there is no guarantee — Ricklefs said the park could open in early fall.
When the public finally is able to explore their new park, Carlton said it won’t look much different than it does today, with the exception of less houndstongue.
“The idea is that this place won’t change a whole lot,” he said. “It’s still going to be a wonderful home for wildlife. There was a giant moose that hung out here last winter. We want to ensure that it retains those primitive natural characteristics that make it such a special place now.”