The well-worn trail along the Bitterroot River at Hamilton’s new Skalkaho Bend Park is a testament to its popularity for folks looking for a breath of fresh air in a beautiful setting.
While most people take in the stunning views of the river and its mountain backdrop, it’s likely that many don’t give a second thought to the fact the trail they are walking on will likely disappear someday.
But all it takes is one look at the long stretch of the eroding bank of the river to get a glimpse of what’s to come.
“It doesn’t take a scientist to notice the bank erosion on the river along the park,” said Bitter Root Water Forum executive director Heather Barber. “When we heard there was work being done to bring this park to the community, we recognized there wasn’t the kind of plants that we’re used to seeing alongside streams.”
Famous for its meandering ways, without roots in the ground to slow erosion, the Bitterroot River would continue to eat its way across the wide-open grassland bench that so many have come to enjoy.
Working with the City of Hamilton and with help from professional consultants, the Bitter Root Water Forum has proposed creating a natural barrier of willows, bushes and trees that will eventually slow the migration of the river.
Their plan calls for planting that defensive line of riparian vegetation next spring on the east side of the current trail with the help for what the group hopes will be a small army of volunteers. The work will include excavating a small swale along much of the 1,520-foot-long project so water can be pulled from a small overflow stream to water the new plantings.
“We plan construction of the project in March,” said Bitter Root Water Forum restoration coordinator Andrea Price. “We will plant a dense row of willows, shrubs and other plant species. And then we’ll surround those plantings with a temporary wildlife fencing to protect them for the first few years.”
There is a variety of ways that people wanting to help can get involved.
The Water Forum is partnering with the City of Hamilton to collect woody debris this fall needed for the project. People clearing out branches and logs from their property can bring those to the Hamilton City Street Shop at 119 St. Mary’s Ave. from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on weekdays. The material needs to be somewhere from 10 to 20 feet long and 3 to 12 inches in diameter, preferably limbed.
Between January and March, volunteers will collect thousands of willow cuttings that will be replanted next spring at the park.
“When willows are dormant in the winter, you can cut off the branches and then replant them in a new place,” Prices said. “They will grow a new root system.”
The Water Forum also plans to obtain serviceberry, aspen, cottonwood and red osier dogwood from Hamilton’s Great Bear Native Plants that will also be planted in the erosion-slowing line of native vegetation.
This project in the heart of one of the Bitterroot Valley’s population centers will offer the public a chance to see restoration in action.
“It’s basically going to become an outdoor classroom where we can teach people about stream dynamics,” Barber said. “The project will both slow erosion and create new habitat. We plan to have signs that will provide information about the natural process of channel migration.”
Barber said it fits perfectly into the Bitter Root Water Forum’s goal of building community around the river.
“Most of our projects are on private land or high up in the headwaters,” she said. “This one will be where everyone can see it and learn from it.”
People interested in volunteering can learn more or sign up to help at the Water Forum’s website at https://www.brwaterforum.org/ Barber said calls for volunteers will also be sent out on the forum’s email list.
“Volunteers are a huge part of the reason we can get so much work accomplished in the watershed,” Barber said. “We’ve done similar work using willows on the Rye Creek and Willow Creek. Volunteers are the heartbeat of the Water Forum.”
Barber said everyone at the Water Forum is grateful for this opportunity to play a role in shaping the future of Hamilton’s newest park.
“We are so appreciative of the Bitter Root Land Trust’s vision and the efforts of the City of Hamilton to make this park possible,” Barber said. “It’s a tremendous community resource. It’s wonderful to see so many people using it. We want this incredibly spectacular natural riverfront park to be here for future generations.”
The Water Forum's plan still needs final approval by the Hamilton City Council.
Councilperson Claire Kemp said the issue was discussed before the city’s committee of the whole and will soon be presented to the full council.
“I think the council understands the need for it,” Kemp said. “Without doing something, over time we will pretty much lose that park to the river.”