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Out and about: Wild state land close to Billings
State property recently opened to the public runs from this hillside looking down to the Yellowstone River bottom.

There's something satisfying about wading through a stream without taking your shoes off … at least initially, anyway. Later, when you're squishing along in sopping wet shoes caked with dirt, the idea loses some of its luster.

On a recent tour of state land off Jellison Road, my route to the Yellowstone River was blocked by a flooded side channel. The land was reopened to the public in February. At first, I considered taking off my shoes and socks to wade the channel. But then I thought, "what the heck," and just splashed through the ankle-deep water.

Crossing the side channel with my shoes on wasn't the only semi-safari-like event during my exploration of the parcel. I could've used a machete to carve a route through the overgrown underbrush of willow, young cottonwood and wild rose bushes. And even when I left the river bottom to hike the steep adjacent hillside, I ended up in the thickest stretch of scrub juniper I've ever fought through.

The Public Lands Access Association Inc. and the Yellowstone County Commission were instrumental in fighting to have the state land reopened to the public after being closed for 40 years. It took two years of wrangling to make the public land public again.

"It was a long, drawn-out process," said John Gibson, president of PLAAI.

The 600 acres of land is divided by Jellison Road, southwest of Billings and south of the Yellowstone River, about 4 miles from Riverfront Park.

"It's state land all the way to the river and up the hill on the other side of the road," Gibson said. "There are lots of deer, pheasant, waterfowl and turkeys. It's wild stuff. There isn't any great trail system."

During my meander to the river, I saw ducks, a heron and the flash of a white-tailed deer, several mosquitoes, a few ants and only one woodtick. This lower section includes about a half mile of river frontage.

In only a few minutes I climbed almost 300 feet, transitioning from wetlands to drylands, mud to heat-cracked bentonite, a lush jungle heavy with the musky smell of Russian olive tree blossoms to a dry prairie scented with the tang of sage and dotted with blooming prickly pear cactus.

On the upland side of the section, south of Jellison Road, I saw whitetail deer and turkeys down below, flushed one mule deer doe and found only one more tick. The hills offered great views of the river valley, the Beartooth Mountains and looking straight down the Yellowstone River to downtown Billings.

The land is open to hunting with shotguns, bows and muzzleloaders, with closures near surrounding homes. Horseback use is also allowed, although motorized vehicles are banned.

The PLAAI, state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation and Yellowstone County commissioners should be thanked for opening up such an untamed area so close to Billings. It's up to the rest of us to ensure that it remains that way by being good neighbors and stewards of the land. So don't trespass or litter and follow all other state land-use regulations. That includes purchasing a conservation license or state lands-use permit to recreate on state lands.

Brett French can be reached at french@billingsgazette.com or at 657-1387.

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