The first work on Stevensville’s new John Owen Fishing Access Site got underway this last week with hundreds of holes punched through hard-packed soil along the bank of the Bitterroot River.
Filled with a combination of topsoil and compost, the holes will soon become home for new trees and shrubs that will eventually stabilize the bank while creating new habitat for trout and wildlife.
It’s just the first of several projects that will transform the popular recreational site over the next year or so.
None of it would have been possible without the generosity of the neighbor, Myla Yahraus of the Fort Owen Ranch.
Yahraus donated 6.25 acres on the east side of the Bitterroot River just below the Cutoff Road Bridge for the fishing access site. The Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission approved the project in 2018 to build a new site that will include enough parking for about 30 vehicles and trailers, four campsites, a concrete latrine and trail connections.
The site’s construction was pushed back for a couple of years while work was completed on a second project on the Yahraus property at Fort Owen State Park.
“It started out as a fishing access site project, but that turned into a second parks project,” said Rory Zarling, FWP’s Fishing Access Site Program manager. “We owe Myla Yahraus a debt of gratitude for making it all possible.”
The work on the larger project at the fishing access site will occur either next spring or the following fall, depending on a number of factors including weather and the contractor’s schedule.
This year, the focus is on the ground just below the gravel bed that people have used to launch their boats for decades.
FWP partnered with the Bitter Root Water Forum to re-vegetate the bank denuded by foot and motorized traffic over the years. A crew of three FWP employees spent seven days drilling and digging holes that will be filled with ponderosa pine, cottonwood, larch, aspen, chokecherries, dogwood, snowberries and other native vegetation.
The plans call for building a drip line to help the trees and shrubs get established in the rocky soil along the river. A post and rail fence will be constructed this fall to help keep people and critters away from the young plants.
“It’s been gnarly tough work to get the holes dug,” Zarling said. “The ground is really rocky and hard-packed. That area looks really rough and abused, but give it a couple of years and it will look great.”
The hope is the trees and shrubs will be planted on Oct. 14 and 15, with the help of Bitter Root Water Forum volunteers.
“I think this area is really beloved by the public and a community gathering place,” said Bitter Root Water Forum’s restoration coordinator Andrea Price. “We are glad to have the opportunity to be able to help preserve it. It’s an exciting way to start off the work of building a new fishing access site.”
The Bitter Root Water Forum’s talks about partnering with the FWP on the site date back to 2018.
The forum received a Montana Department of Environmental Quality 319 Program to help offset some of the costs of rehabilitating the site. It’s used the same source of funding for restoration work at Hamilton’s Skalkaho Bend Park and on private lands on Burnt Fork Creek.
“We’ve been able to help bring some funding and create some additional capacity to help get the work completed,” Price said. “FWP has pretty full plates … We’ll help coordinate volunteers on the planting days that will happen next Thursday and Friday.”
A number of people have already signed on to help with the project but there is room for more. People interested in helping with the planting project can call the forum’s office at 406-375-2272 or email at email@example.com.
“We would love to get some more people signed up,” Price said. “We want to engage with people from different parts of the valley.”
“What we have here is a place that’s very well loved by the community and its condition right now is a part of the consequences of the amount of use that it receives,” she said. “There are not a lot of younger shrubs and trees. There is a handful of cottonwood and ponderosa pines but some are already dying.”
“We have to think decades ahead on the tree’s timeline,” Price said. “We will plant about 250 native plants and protect them with a fence while they get established.”
Longtime fishing outfitter and Stevensville resident Eddie Olwell said it wasn’t long ago there was a lot of contention with the previous landowner over the public use at the popular site.
“We faced a risk of losing that access,” Olwell said. “Fortunately, the land changed hands and Myla has generously allowed the public to use the property and then donated the land that will create an access site that generations will enjoy. We all owe her a debt of gratitude.”
The site is one of the most popular for access to the Bitterroot River due to its proximity to Missoula.
“There’s great fishing above and below that access,” Olwell said. “From a fisherman’s standpoint, it has great value. Beyond that, the town has a riverfront park that adjoins the property that’s used by lots of people for dog walking, fishing, and bird watching. It’s going to get used by lots of different recreationists, not just fishermen.”
“As a fishing guide, fishermen and Stevensville resident, my family and I spend a lot of time at that park,” Olwell said. “We certainly appreciate that it’s there.”