By Carlotta Grandstaff
Compared to what was to come, the weather on the Thursday before the Memorial Day weekend weather was mildly inclement: light sprinkles, intermittent sun, jackets on, jackets off, and a sky full of clouds a meteorologist might call cumulus congestus. In short, springtime in the Rockies, and a good day for a stroll in the park.
The park in this springtime stroll is not really a park at all – not yet anyway – but rather private property clearly marked with “No Trespassing” signs posted on the cottonwood trees alongside the walking path blazed by years of trespassers looking for a little peace.
The Taber property, or more properly, the property that now makes up part of the Taber Estate, was once owned by John and Helen Taber, and represents the largest piece of undeveloped land along the Bitterroot River in Hamilton. The 22-acre parcel, just downstream from the Demmons Fishing Access Site at the Main Street bridge, is on what the geographically-minded would call the east side of the river, and what anglers and floaters would term “river right.” John and Helen’s daughters are now interested in selling the land, and the Bitter Root Land Trust is interested in buying. You might say the Land Trust is more than interested, since the Trust has been quietly, but effectively, raising money since last December to acquire a prime piece of riverfront property for future use as a public park.
The financials are fairly straightforward: the purchase price is $165,000. Add to that the costs of eventually placing a conservation easement on the land – appraisal, legal work, an environmental assessment and a management plan – and the bottom line price rises to $230,000.
The Land Trust has raised $170,000 so far in grants, private foundations and from numerous individuals who are as enthused about the potential for this property as a public park as is Gavin Ricklefs, executive director of the Bitter Root Land Trust.
“Our smallest donation was $25 and the largest was $50,000 and everything in between,” he said. The committed funds represent “a broad array of public and private funding so far.”
The Land Trust plans to build on their fundraising success by requesting $35,000 from the Open Lands Program and through a challenge grant offered by a group of individuals who have raised $11,000 and are asking others to match that amount.
The $35,000 in funds from the Open Lands Program is a small, but critical piece of the funding puzzle, says Ricklefs. And though it may appear to differ from the conservation easement projects approved in recent years, not so, says Ricklefs. The program, approved by the voters in 2006, “can fund a diverse number of things. This is a benefit for the public. It’s what the taxpayers asked the program to do.”
When the land is purchased, the Land Trust plans to transfer ownership to a third party that will manage the land as a park for the public to use and enjoy. Ricklefs doesn’t want to identify the potential third party until negotiations are complete, but it will be an entity with the resources and expertise to manage the land in perpetuity.
“We’d like to think we’re going to hold on to it for a very short time,” he said. If necessary, though, the Land Trust “may end up holding on to it for several years.”
And what will this land look like after all is said and done and it’s opened up to the public? Ricklefs envisions a natural area, kept largely in its current, undeveloped state. No softball diamonds, soccer fields or rugby pitches. A walking trail, definitely, some picnic tables perhaps, a few benches. Just enough to accommodate walkers and their binoculars. Minimal infrastructure for maximum public benefit.
On this cool spring day, the benefits seemed obvious. The Bitterroot River flowed by at about 3,500 cubic feet per second; wood duck and goose nesting boxes peeked out of the adjacent wetlands; red-winged blackbirds issued forth with their curious harsh trilling songs from their perches atop last year’s cattails; chokecherry blossoms were in their springtime prime; and a grove of aspen provided cover for a few skittish whitetail deer and one curious doe who took a few steps towards the human invaders, then, either losing interest or perceiving no danger, returned to her browse. And all this not three minutes from downtown Hamilton.
That evening, the weather still a bit iffy, the Land Trust celebrated its 15-year anniversary with a garden party on the lawn of their Hamilton headquarters across the street from the Bitterroot Public Library. Burgers, sushi, deviled eggs, chips, beer, wine, soft drinks and a birthday cake were served to the guests with ornithologist and Land Trust board member John Ormiston leading the assembled in a chorus of “Happy Birthday.”
Featured prominently was a large Google earth map detailing the existing and potential public parks along the Bitterroot River – from Kiwanis Park adjacent to the Rocky Mountain Lab on the south, upstream end, to Hieronymus Park near the Bitterroot River Inn at the north, downstream end. Somewhere in between the two was the Taber property. And suddenly, with that one image, the potential for one large, riverfront public park, extending north and south through the town of Hamilton on river right, became crystal clear.