What sounded like a horde of giant, angry hornets Saturday was actually volunteers with chainsaws clearing Russian olive trees off of a parcel of land south of Riverfront Park.
The work is the first step in turning the 15-acre parcel, across the Yellowstone River, into a public boat ramp and fishing access. The goal is for the South Billings Boulevard Bridge Fishing Access Site to be open as early as May 1.
The property is just downstream of the bridge, along the Old Blue Creek Road to the Billings Motorcycle Club's grounds. The land will provide about 550 feet of river frontage.
About 25 people came out to help cut down the trees and brush, stack it up and burn it, the brown piles surrounded by pristine snow. The site is a joint effort between the Yellowstone River Parks Association, Our Montana and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
“This is a great thing for our community,” YRPA President Darryl Wilson said Saturday morning. “It’s a great collaboration.”
Other groups who pitched in on Saturday included the Friday Afternoon Paddlers, the Montana River People, Magic City Fly Fishers and members of the Yellowstone Valley Audubon Society.
The deal to buy the property was finalized about a year ago, with YRPA contributing $125,000 and Our Montana obtaining a $100,000 grant to cover the rest of the cost. Then Our Montana secured $160,000 through the Natural Resource Damage Program, which is administering a portion of the ExxonMobil spill funds, to cover the cost of developing the property.
A contract for the work will be awarded on Feb. 4, Wilson said.
“They’ll have to have the approach in, the new vaulted toilet and the parking lot and the boat access before high water,” he said, with a spring opening date planned. “Then closer to fall, in August, we’ll have a grand opening.”
Once the site is opened, FWP has agreed to maintain the bathrooms, empty the trash and do regular checks of the premises, Wilson said.
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“Our goal is developing picnic shelters, walking trails and lending a hand to them because they’re limited on what they can do,” he said. “So we’re going to add more amenities to the park as a partnership with them.”
Wilson is hoping individuals and community groups will donate money to YRPA and Our Montana to help make those amenities a reality.
Dana Lariviere, executive director of Our Montana, said the location of the new fishing access site is perfect for canoeists, rafters and inner-tube riders.
“It’s nice because you can go from Laurel to Duck Creek and that’s two hours, and Duck to here now and that’s two hours, and here to Lockwood,” she said. “So you can plan your trip according to how long you want to be out on the river.”
It’s also nice that the new spot gives an additional entry into the river for search-and-rescue teams, Lariviere said.
“The best part is this is a great thing for emergency services," she said. “We have a lack of emergency access to the river when they need to be out there.”
Mike Penfold, volunteer conservation program director for Our Montana, paused from helping burn the tree limbs to also applaud the cooperation between so many groups to make the new fishing access site a reality. Opening more of the river to people is good thing, he said.
“When you get citizens of Billings together and ask 'what do you want to keep in Billings?' they’ll say the Rims and the Yellowstone River,” he said. “We’re really creating a nice asset for the city of Billings.”