October 20, 2020|By Emy Royce| Land

A Montana Community Shapes Its Future

Swift action and widespread community support made a new nature park along the Bitterroot River possible for the communities of Ravalli County, in Montana.

In 2020, people are seeking the outdoors for fresh air, physical activity, and peace of mind more than ever before. That’s why Skalkaho Bend Park couldn’t have come at a more crucial time for Bitterroot children and families. In July, the Bitter Root Land Trust officially transferred the new parklands to the City of Hamilton. Now 70 acres of natural habitat, 1.5 miles of Bitterroot River bottom, and nearly 2 miles of trails are open to the public.

The Bitter Root Land Trust is located in Hamilton, Montana, about an hour south of Missoula and about 3 hours south east of Helena, the state capital. The area is known for its striking Bitterroot Mountain range to the west, the Sapphire Range to the east, and its namesake blue-ribbon fishery—the Bitterroot River—that meanders up the valley to meet with the Clark Fork River in Missoula. Now, it is also home to the new Skalkaho Bend Park.

10 20 20 Skalkaho Bend Park Hamilton MTSkalkaho Bend Park in Hamilton, Montana. Photo courtesy of Bitter Root Land Trust.

Why This Park Matters

Since opening, many community members have walked, biked, and found their way along the trails of Skalkaho Bend Park, getting the fresh air and physical activity needed during the COVID-19 pandemic. It has become a safe place for children and families to play, learn outdoors, and connect with friends. And it’s clear, nature parks like these aren’t something nice to have, they are a necessity to our health and well-being.

10 20 20 Heartism Music ClassLocal nonprofit, Heartism, provides needs-based learning for children with disabilities and autism. They spent a wonderful day enjoying music at Skalkaho Bend Park. Photo courtesy of Bitter Root Land Trust.

Local teacher Bryan Dufresne shares why this parkland is so important: “My son and his friends met up to play at the skatepark, and when they got hot, they headed to River Park, which is now connected to Skalkaho Bend. They swam, moved logs around to create a diving board, and threw flips into the river, playing some more. This is the power of community. Our kids are better for it, they’re healthier for it, and they’re happier for it. I just want to leave the world a better place than I found it and build something that outlasts me. That provides the purest of happiness.”

Mr. Ollie brought his kindergarten class on a field in early October. His message to his small students was clear: “Pack it in, pack it out.” As the group hiked through the park, every bend in the trail, bridge crossing, and leaf falling at their little feet became a learning opportunity. In fact, the future conservationists can’t wait to come back and shouted in unison, “Let’s come here again!”

10 20 20 Corvallis Kindergarten Field TripA local Kindergarten teacher takes their students on a field trip to Skalkaho Bend Park. Photo courtesy of Bitter Root Land Trust.

How It Happened

How does a project like this come together? It takes a visionary landowner, a supportive community, and organizations like The Conservation Fund and its Conservation Loans Program to kickstart projects like these into high gear.

The Conservation Fund stepped forward to provide bridge financing the land trust needed to purchase the 70 acres of river bottom. That boost got the land trust on track to fundraise the entire $730,000 needed to acquire the property and make enhancements like trails and bridges. The park is now complete and accessible to people from all walks of life.

“Playing a part in the Bitterroot community’s journey towards this park has been exceptionally rewarding. As a Montana resident, I am thrilled that The Conservation Fund’s loan helped to jumpstart this tremendous community effort.”

– Gates Watson, Vice President, Montana and Northwest Director, and Conservation Loans Committee Chair at The Conservation Fund

Over the past year or so, the parkland has been transformed as volunteers turned out to pull noxious weeds and plant native shrubs, trees, and flowering plants. And local businesses have donated materials and time building fences, trails, a vault toilet and bridges.

“The community has been so excited and supportive of this project in every way imaginable. We’ve always seen the land and the love of this special place as the common thread that unites the people of this valley. Creating places for everyone to access nature and the river, like Skalkaho Bend Park, is a collaborative investment we all make together for the future of our community,” says Gavin Ricklefs, Bitter Root Land Trust’s Executive Director. “We are so grateful to our partners at The Conservation Fund for catalyzing this incredible community resource.”

10 20 20 Skalkaho Bend Park in SummerSkalkaho Bend Park is a great nature escape for the residents and visitors of Hamilton, Montana. Photo courtesy of Bitter Root Land Trust.

“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 possible.”

– Dominic Farrenkopf, Mayor of Hamilton, Montana

Whether it’s to find short-term solitude through the rest of COVID-19, gather with family and friends, or just enjoy the beautiful scenery of the Skalkaho Bend, our Bitterroot community will enjoy Skalkaho Bend Park for decades to come.

Written By

Emy Royce

Emy Royce is the Communications Director at Bitter Root Land Trust in Montana. Emy grew up in Southern California on the outskirts of the Mojave Desert. A trip to the Bitterroot Valley as a teenager inspired her move to Montana in 2006. Before she made her way to Montana, Emy earned her Bachelor’s degree in Anthropology, which compliments her role as Communications Director at the land trust. Emy is a graduate of Leadership Montana and serves on the Montana Association of Land Trust’s Communicators’ Network. In her personal time, she loves to run backroads with the family labradoodle, and hike and camp with her husband and two young children.