By Kathy Wehrly, Melissa Hughes and Cheryl Waterworth, Hamilton
TEN THOUSAND willows, aspens, serviceberry and dogwood shrubs, and cottonwoods planted the length of FIVE football fields, surrounded by EIGHT-FOOT-TALL FENCING, paralleling the river and bisecting the beautiful grassland and viewscape of Skalkaho Bend Park –REALLY?! Well, that is exactly what will be coming to our new city Park in March of 2021, if the plan proposed by the Bitter Root Water Forum (BWF) is approved by the City Council in November.
The proposal was first presented to the Council’s ‘Committee of the Whole’ October 13th Zoom meeting, with the only announcement of the plan being on their agenda, on the city’s websites. At that meeting, which was disrupted by a major power outage, a request was made by this Committee to the Parks Director to prepare a Memorandum of Understanding with the BWF; in other words, tacit approval of the plan.
On October 16th, in a Ravalli Republic article titled “Roots Against Erosion,” the BWF laid out their finalized plan for the Skalkaho Bend Park. We assume it is finalized because the article went on to furnish times and a drop-off point to leave truckloads of large, woody debris which will be needed for their erosion work. It also related that many volunteers will be needed to both cut and plant THOUSANDS of willow starts between January and March of the coming year… and solicits them to contact the BWF to sign up as volunteers.
How did a riverbank stabilization concept to plant some vegetation to slow down river erosion, as per the Bitter Root Land Trust (BLT), end up being a HUGE habitat ‘restoration’ project anyway? And ‘why’ is this happening so fast? What is the rush? From proposal of this plan to the council, to execution in barely four months!
When the BLT acquired this property in order to give it to the city, we were told that the intent was to preserve it in its natural state. Director Gavin Ricklefs himself said in a Ravalli Republic article in 2018 that, “the city may put in a few trails, but for the most part, it will remain a quiet, undeveloped natural area.” Well, there is nothing ‘natural’ and ‘undeveloped’ about a dense row of 10,000 willows and trees planted within an 8-foot tall fence over the length of five football fields!
This plan proposes huge changes to the current riparian grassland that is such a unique and cherished part of the park, and which adds much valued diversity and variety in contrast to the ubiquitous willow/cottonwood riparian habitats found immediately up and downstream. These changes will have lasting, irreversible impacts for wildlife movement and those bird species that prefer open grassy areas. Changes in floodplain dynamics, the need for increased weed management, no view of the river from the paved ADA trail, and no direct access to the river from the parking lot, are just some of the other unmentioned consequences.
What is the science behind this plan? Has stabilization of a notoriously and historically meandering river as large and powerful as the Bitterroot ever been attempted before with just a row of willows? What information about the river and its past history is this based on? What are the statistical chances that it will work? What are the other alternatives? Have the various local, state, and federal regulatory agencies been consulted for their expertise? Is bank stabilization even necessary when the river is already using a flood channel to the west? Who made the decision to go with this plan- the BWF? the Parks Director? Is this the best use of taxpayer dollars? We contend that these and many other questions need to be asked and answered before going ahead with this plan which will irrevocably degrade the natural beauty of the park.
It is disturbing that at no time has there been any mention of public input, comment, or review of this plan other than the usual opportunity to speak during a City Council Zoom meeting. Plan details have not been forthcoming, reports on which this plan was based have not been released to the public, and there has been absolutely no effort to involve citizens and users in any decision making process, in spite of the fact that this is a taxpayer funded project via the State Department of Environmental Quality.
And what is really ironic is that 95% of the published photos of this 70-plus acre park have been taken of the grassy river bank with the river and mountains in the background, a stupendous vista that will no longer exist if this “restoration” plan goes forward.
Here’s one agency that’s doing it right – in the same Ravalli Republic paper, an article titled “Fort Owen State Park closed for site planning and improvements” states that the Fish, Wildlife, and Parks department is acquiring a mere ONE acre of private land to provide more room for the parking of visitor vehicles. It says that “… upon submittal of the final plan, the draft development proposal will be available for public review.” And this for a ONE acre PARKING LOT!
In short, we members of the public are expecting of the City and BWF that there will still be a formal, transparent process for public/peer review and input on this largely over-engineered project before it is ‘rubber-stamped’ for approval. Whether one agrees with the project or not, it is the conscionable thing to do. If you agree that the public should have input on such matters, please contact the mayor, members of the City Council, the Bitter Root Water Forum, and/or the Bitter Root Land Trust and let them know what you think!