In Gavin Ricklefs' first year with the Bitter Root Land Trust, he joined the trust’s founder and his mentor, Steve Powell, in visits with the Christmann Family about the potential of preserving a beautiful parcel of land along the banks of the Bitterroot River.
Last week, when Ricklefs joined Hamilton Mayor Dominic Farrenkopf and others to celebrate the opening of Hamilton’s newest wildland park — Skalkaho Bend — he was delighted to see its first official visitor step out of her car.
Powell’s widow, Maureen, had seen the open gate and decided to stop by.
That, in Ricklefs' mind, will always be one of those perfect moments.
“These things often take a long time to come together,” Ricklefs said. “It happens over lots of conversation and a vision that brews in a landowner’s mind. In this case, it’s been over a decade since those first conversations began.”
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Last Thursday, the Bitter Root Land Trust officially turned the 70 acres of parkland that forever protects 1.5 miles of critical river corridor habitat to the City of Hamilton.
A little more than two years ago — in a huge leap of faith — the board of the Land Trust decided they were going to preserve this place for future generations. After The Conservation Fund stepped forward to provide the bridge financing, the trust needed to begin the process of raising $730,000 needed to acquire the property and pay for the necessary upgrades needed to open it to the public.
When they asked for help, people responded.
More than 200 offered donations that ran the gamut from a single dollar to thousands.
“People were excited about this,” Ricklefs said. “They wanted to be part of it.”
Over the past year or so, the parkland has been transformed as volunteers turned out to pull noxious weeds and plant native plants. The Land Trust has put even more people to work building fences, trails, a vault toilet and bridges.
Farrenkopf said he couldn’t be happier about the opening of Hamilton’s newest park.
“The entire community used their time, treasures and talents to make this park possible,” Farrenkopf said. “The park will be enjoyed by the current population and for generations to come.”
Now that it’s open to the public, Farrenkopf said it’s going to be up to people to make sure it remains a shining star the community can be proud to call its own.
“The most important thing now, as the park opens, is for people to be responsible park users,” Farrenkopf said.
The neighbors need to be respected. Dog owners are required to keep their pets on a leash to protect other park users and wildlife. Farrenkopf said the city’s park staff and police will patrol the area and be ready to explain the rules.
But, in the end, Farrenkopf said it’s going to fall on the people who use the park to keep it wild.
“Projects like this don’t come along every day and when you have so much cooperation between several different agencies it makes more projects like this future possibilities,” he said. “I would like to thank everyone who worked tirelessly to make this park possible. I am very proud to have been involved with the process and look forward to seeing Skalkaho Bend become another gem of Hamilton and Ravalli County.”
The new park is adjacent to Hamilton's popular River Park. Just north of there, the community also offers an opportunity for locals and visitors to walk or fish along the Bitterroot River at Steve Powell and Hieronymous parks.
With this new addition, Hamilton now has more than 230 acres of natural riverfront that’s open for the public to enjoy with more than four miles of riverfront.
“Skalkaho Bend is such a huge win for the residents of Hamilton and for the valley,” Ricklefs said. “There aren’t many communities of this size that have that kind of resource that’s open to anyone for free.”
The new park could not have happened without partners that included the Ravalli County Open Lands Bond Program, City of Hamilton, Ravalli County Fish and Wildlife Association, Bitterroot Trout Unlimited, Bitterroot Audubon, Montana Fish and Wildlife Conservation Trust, Rapp Family Foundation, Bitter Root Water Forum, Recreational Trails Program, Steele-Reese Foundation, Family Foundations and the Christmann family.
Maureen Powell is among those who will enjoy Hamilton’s abundance of nearby wild places.
“I like to think of Hamilton’s river parks as an unfenced back yard,” Powell said. “You go there to relax, to play, to watch wildlife and birds, to walk your dog and say hi to your neighbors.
“Our river parks are unique in that they are there in large part to allow the Bitterroot River its floodplain,” she said. “In spring they accommodate the snowmelt with bends and lowlands to slow the flow a bit as we watch and wonder what the channel and summer swimming hole will look like. The river bottom through Hamilton has always had its deer and fishing paths and swimming holes. I’m so grateful that it will forever be a wild shared space.”