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Yellowstone Aerial

An aerial view shows amber cottonwoods along the Yellowstone River near Billings.

LARRY MAYER, Gazette Staff

Millions of dollars in planned projects to improve and develop Yellowstone River recreation inched closer to becoming a reality Thursday night at the most recent Yellowstone River Recreation Advisory Committee meeting.

Funding for the Yellowstone River Recreation Project Plan comes from $2.3 million set aside from a $12 million settlement after a 2011 ExxonMobil pipeline rupture near Laurel spilled 63,000 gallons of oil into the Yellowstone River. 

The committee, composed of three representatives from Yellowstone County, one from Billings, one from Laurel and two from Governor Steve Bullock, spent roughly four hours reviewing more than 20 proposed projects and casting preliminary votes of approval for funding.

Yellowstone County representatives include Brad Shoemaker, John Moorhouse and Gary Connelley. Kathy Aragon and Ted Lovec represented the governor's office. Ken Olsen represented Laurel and Jim Ronquillo represented Billings. All committee members were approved by the governor's office.

Some proposals received reduced funding, while others, like a $100,000 Riverfront Park boat hand launch site, were recommended to receive no funding.

Some of the more "shovel-ready" projects like installation of new latrines at sites along the river, could begin groundbreaking this summer if approved, said Harley Harris, NRDP manager. 

Construction on projects must begin within two years of the governor's approval, according to NRDP guidelines. 

Latrines occupied a sizable portion of the early conversation Thursday night after the meeting began. Committee members met Monday night to learn more about proposed projects and then ranked them. Those rankings were aggregated and a master list was passed out Thursday night.

The top-ranked proposal is to provide $350,000 for the construction of a campground and boat ramps at Riverside Park in Laurel, followed by a $37,000 proposal for vault toilets near the ramp. There was some discussion as to whether or not a double-vault system would be excessive and whether or not money could be saved by having one system of toilets for the boat ramp and the campground. 

Moorhouse said he never has to wait in line when trying to use a restroom near a boat ramp and the group seemed inclined to go with a single-vault system.

Olsen argued that with the campground's potential for high use it would be better to do things right the first time around than to have to go back in later to make improvements. Limiting bathroom availability could also affect the choices people make. 

"There are times when not enough facilities are available and that drives an individual to do certain things," he said.

The double vault proposal was ultimately voted through and the Riverside Park plan as a whole took another step toward coming to fruition.

Attending the meeting was Laurel Public Works Director Kurt Markegard. "It's huge for Laurel, it's one of the biggest things to happen for Laurel parks in a long time," Markegard said. "It's a good project. I'm hoping it succeeds and can be completed."

The campground will offer a space for locals, tourists and visiting family members to park fifth wheel trailers. A proposed conceptual layout shows more than 30 RV sites and 10 tent sites in addition to picnic shelters and playgrounds.  

Next on the list was a proposal to help fund the acquisition and development by Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks of three fishing access sites along the Yellowstone River. The location for one of the sites remains undetermined and the group committee voted that Columbus should be the western limit for the development of any site, in order to maintain an appropriate proximity to the site of the spill. The funding amount for that project was set at $400,000.

A $160,000 South Billings Bridge fishing access site plan was voted through, as was a Sindelar Ranch fishing access site. The proposal for $62,000 in funding for Lion Family Park in Laurel was also approved. 

Big changes could be in store for Coulson Park as well, based on Thursday's meeting. Located near the site of the old coal-fired J.E. Corette power plant, $45,000 was voted through for a master plan for the park. 

YRPA Board of Directors President Darryl Wilson spoke during the public comment portion to question if Coulson is worth developing if the city continues to dump sludge there. Ronquillo said that to his understanding the city has stopped depositing sludge at Coulson because of complaints. 

Big Sky Economic Development will be matching another $45,000 for the master plan. The committee voted approval of $250,000 to Coulson Park infrastructure and $110,000 for Coulson Park improvement. 

The goal for the project includes increasing Coulson Park access, developing trails at the park and a picnic area, and making boat launch improvements. Another goal is to improve bathroom and parking access at the park. 

Patrick Klugman with BSED said improvements to the park are "an opportunity to enhance our entryway through Billings," due to high volume of traffic passing through the area. 

"If there's anything on here other than our top five to take a gamble on, I think this is the one," Connelley said. 

A proposal was also approved to provide $420,000 to create a 2.4-mile asphalt multi-use trail at Riverfront Park. The trail would be 8 to 10 feet wide and the city would plow it, said city parks supervisor Mike Pigg. The trail would be compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act, he said. 

The committee also voted in favor of a proposal to provide $30,000 to YRPA for the acquisition of the Washington Street Bridge, which would connect the Jim Dutcher trail and allow legal access to the river at the bridge location. 

Recommendations from the committee and the Montana Department of Justice's Natural Resource Damage Program could be available by late March for a 30 day public comment period.

Public comment will be reviewed and another round of voting will likely take place sometime in April before the proposals reach Bullock's desk, possibly by the spring, said Natural Resource Damage Program environmental specialist Alicia Stickney.

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Night Reporter

General assignment reporter for The Billings Gazette.