Twenty years ago, in the spring of 1996, I drove for more than 20 miles along the Yellowstone River in the passenger seat of Norm Schoenthal’s battered pickup truck.
Schoenthal was then the greenway coordinator for the Yellowstone River Parks Association. I was working for the Billings Gazette, having recently gone back to reporting after working as an editor for seven years.
My guided tour of the river started at Duck Creek Bridge and wound downstream, with Schoenthal explaining how the YRPA hoped one day to have a linear trail running alongside the river for all those miles.
He stopped many times in our several-hour jaunt to point out some notable obstacle or a particularly striking vista. Our journey ended at a ranch owned by Jim and Ginnie Sindelar, caretakers of a beautiful spread homesteaded by Jim’s grandfather John H. Dover.
The Sindelars had already placed the homestead and the adjoining Five Mile Creek bottomland under an easement with the Nature Conservancy, to protect the properties from development in perpetuity. And even then, the Sindelars were working with the YRPA to realize Jim and Ginnie’s dream of creating the John H. Dover Memorial Park.
That was my introduction to the YRPA and to the Sindelars, and I was impressed. In this hectic world, in an era when shortsightedness is king, here were people decades older than me envisioning and helping to build projects that might not bear fruit until their grandchildren were grown.
They were on my mind all Saturday morning during the dedication of the first phase of the memorial park, which is about five miles northeast of the junction of Highways 312 and 87 in the Heights. Just follow Mary Street until it turns into Five Mile Road southwest of Pioneer School. Where the road takes it first big curve and then dips, you’re at the main entrance to John H. Dover Memorial Park.
The section of the park that was dedicated and officially opened to the public on Saturday consists of about 173 acres. Much of it is bottomland, with several miles of trails—some of it bare ground, most of it covered with crushed limestone—and two suspension bridges and three fixed bridges over Five Mile Creek.
There is also a lot of parkland on the bluffs high above the river, and on the bench closer to the road is an eight-acre dog park. YRPA president Darryl Wilson said the dog park already has a perimeter fence, but it needs interior fencing, a gate and a parking lot before it opens, probably in a month or two.
Dogs aren’t allowed elsewhere in the park but bicycles are welcome. The park will be open every day, and the park gate will be locked each night at 8. As for when it will open every day, all Wilson could say was fairly early, whenever a YRPA volunteers gets there and unlocks it. Eventually they hope to have a caretaker with regular hours.
Wilson said a big part of their vision is to use the park as an educational tool.
“That’s the neat thing about this park,” he said. “It’s so close to all the high schools and the colleges. They can use this for an outdoor classroom.”
It is close to town. From the bluff over Five Mile Creek you have a clear view of the control tower at the Billings-Logan International Airport, not to mention the ExxonMobil refinery a little upstream.
That’s somehow fitting. The area around Billings is by far the most industrial stretch of the Yellowstone, the longest undammed river in the lower 48 states. The goal of the YRPA and people like the Sindelars has been to carve out and preserve refuges of natural beauty on the banks of this citified river.
Part of the Sindelar ranch is being mined for gravel by Knife River, and when that mining ends in the next five to 10 years, the Sindelars plan to turn another 120 acres into parkland, including an 85-acre lake, substantially larger than nearby Lake Elmo.
The YRPA has accomplished so much since I made that drive with Schoenthal 20 years ago. Projects the organization has had a hand in include Riverfront, Mystic, Earl Guss, Two Moon and Coulson parks, Norm’s Island, the Audubon Education Center, river access points and many miles of trail.
Late last year, the YRPA was given 17.6 acres of land, most of it a former gravel pit, behind the Scheels store on Shiloh Avenue. Another park in the making.
All along, the organization’s work has been done by countless volunteers, fueled by donations of money, equipment, tools, supplies and construction material. Just as important have been individuals like Jim and Ginnie Sindelar, people with big visions, big hearts and tons of community spirit.
Do make a point of checking out the brand-new Dover Park, which is well on its way to becoming one of the finest parks in the state. And give thanks for people like the Sindelars and organizations like the YRPA.
If thanks isn’t enough, send the YRPA some money. Given their track record, you can be sure your money will be spent wisely.