This time of year, the flowers of Russian olive trees emit a sweet fragrance, a harbinger of the coming summer.
But the non-native species, declared a noxious weed in some states, but not Montana, leaves a sour taste in the mouths of many. The fast-growing tree has a nasty habit of crowding out native varieties and taking over riparian areas, where it consumes copious amounts of water.
Russian olives are common throughout Billings and other parts of the state. Stand on the shore at Lake Elmo State Park, and you see dense thickets of the silver-leafed trees dotting the landscape in almost all directions.
On Saturday, more than 40 volunteers, including park neighbors and volunteers from Harvest Church, waged a battle against Russian olives in the northwest section of Lake Elmo State Park. They worked with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks employees to chop up the pre-cut trees and cart them off to the Billings landfill.
It’s a dent in the park’s large Russian olive population, said Terri Walters, manager of the state park for the past 16 years. It and previous efforts are helping to make a difference.
“This has been one of our biggest issues, and I have tried making progress in multiple ways,” Walters said, speaking over the loud buzz of multiple chain saws on Saturday morning.
Walters and other park officials put together a management plan on how to systematically approach the Russian olive situation. The intent isn’t to remove every single Russian olive — they provide shade and the birds enjoy them — but to maintain control over the population.
The plan involves removing dead Russian olive trees, which the park manages internally, and recruiting groups to help clean out the canopies underneath groves of cottonwoods and other species.
The Montana Conservation Corps has helped in the past, as has United Way volunteers and other local organizations.
“We’ve had a couple of groups come in and done specific groves in the park," Walters said. "But this is by far the biggest attempt so far.”
The city also gave the park a one-time burning permit to remove the trees. The benefit of that, she said, is the work is less labor-intensive.
Park ranger Jessica Sharbono oversaw Saturday’s project. Driving a small utility vehicle on a trail, she pointed out where the work was being done. Across from one spot, Sharbono motioned to a small cleared space that FWP employees tackled last fall.
“It took us a couple months to do what they’re doing in a day,” she said.
Sharbono also nodded to Russian olive seedlings springing up next to the Billings Bench Water Association canal. Birds eat the tree’s seeds, which the birds then deposit all over the park.
“If you leave them there about a year and a half, they’ll be 4 feet tall,” she said.
In advance of Saturday’s work, Sharbono worked with Jim Routson, recruited for the project by Harvest Church. Routson and Sharbono spent part of Thursday and all day Friday prepping for Saturday.
Routson operated a skid-steer with a tree-sheer to cut down the trees. Sharbono then applied a chemical treatment to the stumps to prevent the trees from re-growing.
On the brief Saturday tour, she pointed out small willow trees and junipers that had been completely hidden by the Russian olives. With the insidious interlopers removed, the other trees get more sun exposure and a better chance to grow.
Herm Elenbaas, one of the park’s nearby neighbors, was on hand to help out on Saturday. He and his family enjoy the lake and frequently take walks on the 1.4-mile path around it.
“So it’s neat to be able to give back something, to help them get a job done that they’ve wanted to do,” he said.
Elenbaas, also a member of Harvest Church, approached the Rev. Vern Streeter, pastor of the large Heights congregation, to see if the church would be willing to help. Since Harvest had previously completed a similar Russian olive project at the John H. Dover Memorial Park in the Heights, Streeter was glad to give the go-ahead.
“I just dropped the word to Vern, and he said ‘Harvest is all in,’ ” Elenbaas said.
Streeter asked Chuck Barthuly, executive director of the Better Billings Foundation, the charitable arm of the church, to spearhead Harvest’s involvement in the project.
“So Chuck put the Harvest wheels on the thing and got the teams out here for today,” Elenbaas said.
Volunteer Jeff Rohrer, wearing a green Harvest Event Crew T-shirt, used a chain saw to chop up the thorny branches. Then he carried them to a waiting pickup and tossed them onto a growing pile.
“This is just part of the stuff we do at Harvest,” Rohrer said, pausing for a moment from his task. “Just volunteering in the community is awesome.”
It’s also part of the culture of the church, he said. Rohrer also helps with another Harvest ministry, a food truck that delivers meals to the homeless and he serves on the parking and traffic team.
A day of physical labor isn’t easy, he admitted.
“But it’s nice to see when it’s done, the impact that you have, especially with these nasty things,” Rohrer said.
Sweat dripped off Scooter Gates’ brow as she gathered bundles of branches to deposit in one of the the rigs waiting to cart away the debris. Gates, another Harvest volunteer, said the goal at Harvest “is to help the community, and we want to do whatever we can to pitch in.”
It’s also a chance to get to know other members of the congregation, she said, and to make a difference.
“It will be nice to come by, and all these nasty Russian olives will be gone,” Gates said, smiling.