MAKOSHIKA STATE PARK, Glendive — The loud rumble of a bulldozer and an excavator pierced the quiet of the rocky crags and canyons inside Makoshika State Park on Saturday.
The goal was to move dirt that heavy rainfall sloughed off in 2011 and repair a portion of the switchback road that takes visitors to the park’s badlands.
That's only one part of the work the Montana National Guard soldiers are doing as part of the road project. They are also roughing in a walking trail; hauling and placing riprap to combat erosion; and fixing rutted roads.
The road project began July 14 and is estimated to take 10 weeks.
But the work is more than just about roads, said Lt. Col. Tim Crowe, public affairs officer for the Montana National Guard. It’s a unique partnership between the Montana Army National Guard, the Montana Air National Guard and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
Crowe brought members of the media from Billings using a Blackhawk helicopter so they could see the work in progress.
The story goes a few years back, Crowe said, when the Army National Guard’s 260th, which is based in Miles City, was converted from a field artillery unit into a horizontal engineering company. Horizontal engineers, he said, work on roads and other close-to-the ground projects.
Not long after the conversion, in June 2012, the 260th deployed for 10 months to Afghanistan on a mission primarily to clear improvised explosive devices from roadways. That required another kind of training.
“When they returned from that deployment, they needed to train for their other primary task,” Crowe said. “That is why they’re very new to the equipment they are assigned for that mission.”
Enter the Montana Air National Guard’s 219th REDHORSE Squadron, based in Great Falls, whose focus is civil engineering work, similar to that of the 260th.
“They are supplying some of the corporate engineering knowledge to assist the 260th with expertise and training,” Crowe said. “They’ve been doing that work for decades and are able to help the soldiers gain their skills more quickly.”
The partnership between the Montana National Guard and Fish, Wildlife and Parks adds another benefit, Crowe said. The work of the soldiers helps lessen the overall cost, estimated at $1.6 million.
For what has been designated the Innovation Readiness Training project, the 260th has been divided into three smaller groups, with each one working for two weeks on-site. The work that isn’t completed by the soldiers will be done by a private contractor.
On Saturday, 32 members of the 260th worked together with four members of the REDHORSE Squadron.
Makoshika, the largest state park, has been closed on weekdays while the road work is underway. It is open to visitors on weekends, which restricts the work the soldiers can do.
So while some training went on at the main road project, other soldiers practiced at a gravel pit in Glendive. Single drivers in huge excavators and rollers and other construction equipment drove slowly in circles or on dirt hills to hone their skills.
Whether on the road construction or in the gravel pit, they often stopped and consulted with their teachers and then continued on.
Specialist William Nichols of the 260th was practicing on a compactor, under the tutelage of Staff Sgt. Michael Dimas of Poplar. Both arrived on Tuesday and will remain on-site for two weeks.
“I’ve run one of these before,” said Nichols, who is a roustabout for Key Energy for Sidney when he isn’t on duty with the Army National Guard. “This is just a refresher, pretty much.”
Staff Sgt. Cole Seiler, wearing a red hard hat as a member of the REDHORSE Squadron, stood on a bulldozer and spoke with driver Spc. Dustin Brown before Brown restarted the engine and got to work pushing dirt.
Seiler, of Great Falls, who has been with the Air National Guard for 5 1/2 years, was deployed with his squadron to Afghanistan from 2010 to 2011. There, they built runways and roads, built berms for protection and “fixed whatever needed fixing.”
This is the first time he has worked with the Army National Guard, and he was glad for the collaboration.
“It’s a very unique opportunity because we’re segregated, and to be able to do something like this is just so exciting,” Seiler said.
He said he’s hoping the National Guard command will bring the two together to do other projects to help the state.
“We’re from Montana, we love Montana and we want to be here and work for us,” said Seiler, whose full-time civilian job is as an engineer with BNSF.
In a staging area, a group of diesel mechanics talked about the heavy equipment they keep running. Some of the equipment is new and some is used, said Sgt. Tyrel Bain.
The graders are state of the art, Bain said, with joysticks compared to older models that used seven levers. That works better, he said, “for the younger generation who are better with Xboxes and whatnot.”
Bain, who has been in the Army National Guard for six years, works as a mechanic for a trucking company in Culbertson, where he lives.
“My dad had a trucking company growing up and I’ve been doing it, learning, as long as I can remember,” he said.