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Billings parks were visited 2.2 million times last year, and 60 percent of Billings’ 114,000 or so population reported using the city’s trail system, according to The Billings Parks and Recreation Department’s 2017 annual report.

More than 90 percent of Billings households surveyed called parks an “essential” city service.

Beginning with South Park in 1913, nearly 10 percent of Billings has been set aside as park space — 875 acres developed as parkland, and 1,680 acres left in their natural state, such as Riverside Park.

The good news is there are more than 9,500 trees on the 2,555 acres of public lands the department manages and maintains. The bad news is that more than 1,800 of those trees — almost 20 percent — are ash trees, and an invasion of the emerald ash borer is almost inevitable and will destroy each of those ash trees. About 30 percent of the 1,070 trees in Mountview Cemetery are ash.

The best strategy is preparation, the report states, including increasing diversity and proactively removing ash trees.

Parks workers installed fall protection at 25 playgrounds last year. The pools at Rose Park and South Park welcomed 40,000 swimmers. Last summer, 563 children took swimming lessons, and 190 children from low-income families were awarded reduced-cost entry to the pools.

Billings’ older residents also utilized the Parks department's offerings. Through a partnership with the Adult Resource Alliance of Yellowstone County, the Billings Community and Senior Center served up 5,566 meals. The center introduced nine new senior programs and was home to more than 19,000 visitors.

During the year, aspiring Major League ballplayers dropped more than 22,000 tokens into the Strike Zone batting cages at Stewart Park. Machines delivered about 330,000 pitches.

In the five years between 2012 and 2017, parks saw a nearly threefold increase in the number of use permits sold — 61 in 2012, and 168 in 2017.

More than 1,800 volunteers delivered more than 7,200 hours of service to the department. Thirteen Eagle Scout projects were completed, and a second community garden, called Songbird, opened last year. Gardeners there and at the Amend Park Community Garden grew and harvested nearly four tons of produce.

Projects undertaken or completed during 2017 included the South Park Splash Pad and replacement of the Rose Park Pool Operations Building, which will both be completed in time for the opening of the 2018 pool season, and the Yellowstone Kelly Interpretive Site, completed and opened in September.

“Gone are the days when parks were just a place for picnics and horseshoes,” the report states. "Besides providing scenic beauty, parks serve as sites for scientific inquiry and educational opportunity, contribute environmental benefits like oxygen production and filtering particulates from the air and provide a vast array of recreational opportunities for almost everyone’s interests and abilities.”

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City Government Reporter

City reporter for The Billings Gazette.