The Yellowstone River Parks Association is taking the lead on a plan to buy 15 acres of land for a fishing access and boat launch across the Yellowstone from Riverfront Park.
“It’s going to be an amazing development,” said YRPA President Darryl Wilson.
The nonprofit YRPA is working with the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the Montana Fish and Wildlife Conservation Trust to purchase and develop the streamside property, which would be the only official river access between Duck Creek, six miles upstream, and Lockwood, about the same distance downstream. A boat ramp at Coulson Park is in such bad shape that it’s no longer usable, Wilson said.
The new property, which includes more than 500 feet of river frontage, is on the south bank of the Yellowstone just downstream of South Bridge.
Wilson said he negotiated the sale with Billings lawyer Kelly Varnes, who represented property owners Richard and Dawn Lee of Scobey, settling on a price of $207,000. The YRPA, at Wilson’s urging, committed $125,000 toward the purchase. That virtually cleaned out the YRPA’s bank account, Wilson said, but the project seemed too important to pass up.
“This is going to be such a nice project for our city,” he said. “We have got to start focusing on our river.”
The Montana Fish and Wildlife Conservation Trust has agreed to put up $100,000 toward the purchase, Wilson said, and the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks has committed $160,000 for development and maintenance of the site.
Wilson said the development would include an access road, a boat ramp and a vault toilet. Part of YRPA’s contribution was also used to pay for the work needed to get the property ready for sale, though Wilson said they saved a good bit of money by prevailing on local professionals to work at greatly reduced rates.
That included Thomas Smith, with the Billings law firm Moulton Bellingham, who worked on the buy-sell agreement; Sanderson Stewart, which did the boundary survey; and First Montana Title, which which did the title work.
“You call any of our local people and they’re always ready to step up,” Wilson said.
Wilson said the YRPA hopes to close the sale in late January, get working on site design and development as soon after that as possible and open the access to the public by next fall.
The whole thing came together quickly, Wilson said. Just three months ago, he was at a meeting of the Yellowstone River Recreation Advisory Project Committee, which has $2.3 million to give out in grants for recreation projects, part of a $12 million settlement with ExxonMobil over a pipeline rupture in July 2011.
A representative of Fish, Wildlife & Parks mentioned to Wilson that the department had long wanted to add another fishing access in the Billings area but couldn’t afford to establish one on its own. That person put Wilson in touch with the Lees, owners of the riverfront property.
Wilson said the property was homesteaded by Dawn Lee’s grandmother, and the property is still home to an old log barn that apparently was part of the original homestead.
At this point, the YRPA is asking local residents and river users to back the project by writing letters of support during a public comment period on the proposed acquisition. Letters can be sent to the Montana Fish and Wildlife Conservation Trust at P.O. Box 1993, Helena, 59624, or by email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Other work that has to be done on the site includes demolishing a vacant house and clearing the 15 acres of Russian olive trees. Wilson said they might be able to get the demolition done for free, and he’d like to use volunteers to take out the Russian olives. If they can get a permit from the city, he said, it would be fun to celebrate with a party afterward, and have a giant bonfire of downed trees.
Wilson is also hoping area residents will make cash contributions to the YRPA to replenish its bank account, since the organization has many other projects to work on. There is the development of John H. Dover Memorial Park and Joel’s Pond, and the YRPA’s continuing partnership with the Montana Audubon Center.
Wilson said YRPA most likely will retain ownership of the property through a trust, with FWP responsible for operating and maintaining the access. He said the site will also be of great use to the search and rescue program of the Yellowstone County Sheriff’s Office.
“I haven’t sat down and talked to them yet,” Wilson said, “but I know they’re going to be excited.”