They gathered Tuesday in the shade of the bright-yellow cottonwoods along the banks of the West Fork of the Bitterroot River to celebrate a longtime dream come true.
Sitting with her family within earshot of the murmuring waters that they had graciously allowed the public to access for decades, Marty Stomberg smiled and nodded as people spoke about the long and complicated journey that led to the official creation of the WW White Memorial Fishing Access Site.
Named after her son, Ben, who dreamed of preserving this favorite piece of his backyard for generations to come, the 97 acres was officially deeded over to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks a couple of weeks ago.
Ben White died in a motorcycle accident just before he turned 24. More than a decade later, the sign dedicating the land that will serve as fishing access, campground and trailhead to national forest lands was officially posted.
“I’m just happy that it’s finally happened,” Stomberg told the small crowd that came to celebrate the newly acquired public access.
Stomberg had already joined in with FWP employees and others to clean up an old dump at the site a few days ago. She’s always seen her role as a caretaker of the land that she’s lived on since 1980.
“Some point last month I came to the realization that I’m going to go from being a part-owner of this land to a volunteer,” she said. “I still want to be involved as much as possible.”
That fact wouldn’t come as much of a surprise to Bitter Root Land Trust’s executive director Gavin Ricklefs and conservation director Kyle Barber. They have worked for years with Stomberg toward the goal of ensuring the land remained pristine and open to the public.
They know how much it means to her.
The Stomberg family was one of the first Ricklefs met when he joined the trust. Standing on a gravel bar not far from the place where fishermen have launched their boat for years, Ricklefs remembered being so impressed with the vision that Stomberg’s son had for this place while still in his teens.
“He was thinking in a way that I sure wasn’t at his age,” Ricklefs said. “I’m sure there have been lots of times since then the family must have thought this would never happen, but they stuck with it.”
FWP’s regional supervisor Randy Arnold said that long-held vision is what makes this parcel special.
“There’s a misunderstanding sometimes around public access in Montana,” Arnold said. “It’s a popular subject. And it’s really easy for people to get behind access, but there’s a clear misunderstanding about the sheer amount of effort that it takes to obtain it and protect it.
“All of the easy access projects are done,” Arnold said. “We had those accomplished many, many years ago. The kinds of access projects that are being done today are some of the most difficult, most complicated and most important to protect what’s left.
“What breaks the rules for me on this one is that Marty and her family had a vision that has transcended all that complexity, all the fundraising, and all the other issues that came up on whether this was going to get done or not,” Arnold said. “All the people who have worked on this from the beginning with the Bitter Root Land Trust and this family’s vision is the only reason that this happened.
“Without that, these kinds of projects come and go,” he said. “In my tenure, I’ve seen similar projects and opportunities like this one light up and blink out. The opportunity comes and it’s gone because we can’t work at a pace fast enough to make it happen.”
Arnold credited community partners — like the Ravalli County Fish and Wildlife Association and its longtime member, Dale Burk — for helping to push this over the finish line.
Burk died recently. Before his death, Burk was featured in a film that explained the importance of the access site.
“I was very glad that he got to see this completed,” Arnold said. “And now this becomes Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ responsibility to manage. We are so, so proud to be able to include this in our suite of fishing access sites.”
Ravalli County Commissioner Chris Hoffman attended the celebration. The commission approved funding from the county's Open Lands Fund to help with the acquisition.
"Our part was the easy part," Hoffman said. "It was a no-brainer for us. It was a great project that worked with a family dedicated to seeing it happen."
FWP plans to complete three projects to improve the site for the public. They include an upgrade at the actual fishing access site for vehicles and trailers, a couple of primitive campgrounds adjacent to that site and a trailhead across the road that people can eventually use to access the Bitterroot National Forest.
Arnold said those projects will be completed in phases.
After the ceremony came to an end, Bitter Root Land Trust president Peggy Ratcheson followed her 2.5-year-old golden retriever named Sophie downstream. As her dog splashed through the riffles with its new friends, Ratcheson took in the spectacular view.
“It’s just a wonderful place,” she said. “I know that people have been using this for a long time, but it’s so good to know now that it will be here forever.”