Gov. Greg Gianforte has signed off on a $618,000 grant to the Yellowstone River Parks Association that will go toward the purchase of 288 acres on an historic island along the Yellowstone River east of Billings.
The funding comes from a $2.2 million settlement the state of Montana negotiated with ExxonMobil Pipeline Co. over its 2011 oil pipeline spill in the Yellowstone River at Laurel. Cottonwood regeneration is one of the goals of the Natural Resource Damage Program, which is administered by the Montana Department of Justice and oversees the grant money dispersal. The Dover grant is the largest issued from the settlement.
“By approving this grant, we’re upholding our commitment to restoring injured natural resources and conserving our environment,” the governor’s office said in a statement.
The land is owned by the descendants of John Dover — Jim and Virginia Sindelar. Dover settled on the river bottom in 1882. His farm produced some of the first fresh produce for the growing community of Coulson and then Billings.
"Now the work begins," said Darryl Wilson, YRPA's president. "We need to get a agreement that will be acceptable to the state of Montana, Canyon Ferry Land Trust, Ducks Unlimited, the Sindelars and finally YRPA."
The nonprofit also must remove any unnecessary title exceptions, verify the title and possibly have a boundary survey conducted.
"I think we can close the transaction sometime in August," Wilson said.
Then he wants to start on a master plan for the property along with site amenities and cost projections.
"YRPA will be able to accomplish a lot of the work with volunteers and corporate donors," he said. "This will be a great winter project, and we can't wait to get the public involved. I really can't stress this enough: If it were not for Ginnie Sindelar we would not be in this position."
The island on which John Dover settled divided the Yellowstone River, making upstream steamboat traffic impossible except during high water during spring runoff. Dover set about diverting the river by blasting off the nearby sandstone cliffs. YRPA hopes to one day see the river reclaim some of the bottomland to restore the island to a more natural environment.
The land also has the potential to eventually be connected to the nearby John H. Dover Memorial Park, land donated by the Sindelars. Located along the mouth of Five Mile Creek, the 142 acres were opened to the public in 2016. The park offers a trail system along the Yellowstone River, just upstream of the Sindelar farm.
An environmental assessment will be the next step for the NRDP.
YRPA will have to raise the rest of the money for the $1.26 million purchase price. The Montana Fish & Wildlife Conservation Trust and Phillips 66 have already agreed to donate $300,000, according to Wilson. He expects another $600,000 will be needed to make improvements to the property, like restoring the 100-year-old Dover home, building a parking area and removing fences.
The hope is to have the land accessible to the public by the fall of 2022.