In September 1991, the Yellowstone River Parks Association began meeting every Wednesday above what was Gary Buchanan’s office in downtown Billings.
Gary provided YRPA with weekly meeting space for the first 17 years, plus so much more. Early walk-in members included Norm Schoenthal, Don Wirth, Doug Habermann, Bruce Larsen, Gary Svee and Burt Williams.
Terry Zee, Cal Cumin, Mike Hink, Bob Mackin and others were there at the very front, Jim Bauer still is. Our springboard was the Chamber of Commerce’s Leadership Billings training.
We “occupied” Norm’s Island and began cutting trails with Ted Wirth, Ted Jr., and Terry’s volunteer Bobcat. Vince Larsen brought us what is now the Four Dances Natural Area, owned by the Bureau of Land Management.
Key advisers were Rocky Brown, Bill Dimich and John Fekety, with valuable input and a loaner EIN number. Dick Spalding got us a generous estate bequest. Grove Thomas brought us Mary Anne Lutz who produced our first 50 newsletters. Many have stepped up with money, expertise and time.
A seminal moment was when Bobby Glasgow from JTL came to a Wednesday meeting telling us “that we had six weeks to change the highway bridge plans” so that construction of a trail under the Billings side of the Fred Johnson Bridge connecting First Avenue North at MetraPark to Lockwood could be cut nine feet into the floodplain instead of having no trail under the new highway bridge.
Roy Ventura, Montana Highway Department district engineer, gathered all the necessary signatures, from MDT, the city, the county, pipeline companies, utilities, the Army Corps of Engineers and the 100 Year Brown Trout Committee.
The Billings Gazette threw in $3,000, as did the YRPA and the Kiwanis, leading to creation of Kiwanis Trail. Six weeks later, Hans Hansen of COP Construction made it all work for $9,000, and he threw in equipment, fuel, labor, experience and anything else needed, to the tune of perhaps $100,000.
Today that link connects the water treatment plant to Mary Street. An abandoned Heights railroad right-of-way is both a bike-trail and a city utility corridor. The trail under the BNSF/MRL bridge just upstream of the Fred Johnson Bridge is another small miracle. The concrete paving is yet another.
The Dutcher Trail honors Jim Dutcher, of School District 2, who brought us RiverFest. To open Norm’s Island to RiverFest in 1992, Blake Mackin and Bob Mackin built Wendell’s Bridge for us. Wendell Peterson was an early supporter and volunteer. Gary Buchanan, Bob Waller and George Selover asked Joe Sample to complete the bridge, and Joe handed them a $37,000 check payable to YRPA.
Jim Darling of Fish, Wildlife & Parks introduced the YRPA to Jim and Ginny Sindelar during Christmas 1991. So today greater Billings has the 175-acre John H. Dover Memorial Park. Also in 1991, Joel Long gave YRPA a “lease” on his 27-acre JTL gravel pit along South Billings Boulevard. Today that gravel pit is the Audubon Center, which reaches kids and teaches kids. In 2015, Joel gave the YRPA the 16-acre pond behind the New Scheel’s store, plus some money.
These things don’t just happen, they occur because we do things. YRPA is no accident.
There are in this community many other groups doing things, including runners, bikers, joggers, walkers, TrailNet, the Chamber, RiverStone Health and both hospitals.
For 25 years, YRPA has done good things in greater Billings. We are all volunteers; no debt, no payroll, we are gravel and Bobcats. We continue to meet every Wednesday, so a decision is only a week away. Come to Wednesday meetings, make a difference. Check out www.wrpa.org.
John H. Dover Memorial Park will challenge us. The cultural and economic possibilities are endless—175 acres of deeded, dedicated parkland with a mile of undeveloped Yellowstone River frontage. There is also Five Mile Creek flowing through the park bottomland, with 100,000 people living next door, six miles to an airport, a mile to an interstate, in the middle of looming, new, major highway construction.
Dover Park is a huge opportunity, and a huge undertaking. Few communities have such opportunities. We need your help.
In the contest between the rock and the river, the river always wins. We are the river.
By Earl Guss, YRPA founder, with 11 others.