Peaks to Creeks Initiative

Community-Based Conservation at its Finest

Peaks to Creeks consists of 558 acres in two parcels – one along the banks of Tenmile Creek and the other on Sevenmile Creek. Public access in the urban boundary to our waterways didn’t exist previously but thanks to this acquisition, two miles of creek frontage will be available and accessible for all. Due to the diverse set of partners and stakeholder values that this project brings, the Land Trust Alliance hailed this project as one of the top community conservation projects in the western US. Through conservation, PPLT seeks to improve the quality of life in the communities we serve and in addition to the conservation benefits for the water resources, open space, and habitat and stream restoration opportunities. This acquisition will also provide:

  • Opportunities for our youth and educators in the Helena area
  • Centennial Trail connection for new commuter routes for the approximately 700 employees at the VA hospital and MT Army National Guard
  • Outdoor exercise space for military training
  • Direct access to outdoor space for recovering veterans and visiting family members
  • Paths to accommodate all levels of ability
  • Protection of surrounding open space and the setting for the Archie Bray Foundation for Ceramic Arts

Tenmile Creek Park

Tenmile Creek Park is Prickly Pear Land Trust’s foremost community conservation project. This park is for you, whether you are an aspiring young angler, a bike commuter or someone who wants a flat, accessible place to recreate – there is something for everyone! Comprising 180 acres of former ranchland, this land was acquired in 2016 in partnership with Fort Harrison in order to preserve it as open space. Community conservation is an approach to land conservation with the goal of connecting the people of a community to place. Tenmile Creek Park creates these connections by providing accessible walking paths and the only urban creek access to one of Helena’s primary water sources. Happy Trails!

Sevenmile Creek

Restoration work begins

Rebirth and Sevenmile Creek

By Lisa Bay

When PPLT first acquired the 350-acre Sevenmile parcel as part of the Peaks to Creeks project, it wasn’t immediately evident just what a treasure had been secured. The streambanks were deeply eroded and incised, weeds out-competed native plants, and the stream often ran chocolate brown from sedimentation

After 1.5 years of rest, a different picture is emerging, even to the untrained eye. Native willows, all but gone at the time of acquisition, are sending up new growth along the streambanks, and nesting birds are returning to the thickening overstory. With extraordinary support from professionals as well as volunteers  and generosity from several funders, Sevenmile stands a chance to reclaim its former glory – with a little help from PPLT.

Getting the restoration right

The first step PPLT took was to hire noted geomorphologist Karin Boyd and restoration specialist Mike Sanctuary to conduct a scientific analysis of past damage to the stream’s natural function and potential restoration actions that could revive it. This initial assessment led in two directions: 1) securing the help of local experts and scientists to help us establish baseline conditions at the site so that restoration actions could be measured and adaptively managed, and 2) hiring restoration contractors to conduct the physical restoration to help correct identified problems.

The experts

In April 2017, Last Chance Audubon Chapter called upon its membership to help PPLT establish baseline monitoring for bird species and populations at the site. Project leader Shane Sater registered an eBird site with Cornell University to track the monitoring electronically and has since been conducting twice-weekly surveys using strict protocols to track data. As of June 12, 77 species have been documented at the site, including sandhill cranes and long-billed curlews.

In May, Jordan Tollefson, from the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, led a streamside staff-training about protocols for measuring bank stability and erosion and sedimentation potential, as well as vegetation cover. This endeavor not only trained local professionals and PPLT Project manager, Nate Kopp, but also provided PPLT with baseline data for comparison with future restoration actions and outcomes.

Then in June, Natural Resources and Conservation Service staff leader Darcy Goodson headed up a team, including NRCS staff Diane Fitzgerald, PPLT restoration consultant Lisa Bay, and Montana Aquatic Resources Services’ Lauren Alleman, to conduct “greenline” vegetation monitoring to establish current conditions with which to measure future results of vegetative restoration. “I was astonished to see the rate of re-growth of the native coyote willows, just from removing the cattle from the stream,” said Darcy Goodson. “We found them rebounding in all but the barest banks, when last year at this time there was hardly a willow to be found.”

Weeds

One of the greatest challenges on the Sevenmile site is the level of weed infestation. Not only is there substantial weed coverage by at least eleven noxious weed species, but the list includes tenacious, hard-to-manage species such as leafy spurge and whitetop. Since weeds rob the streambanks and surrounding land of ecological value and health, and because PPLT is trying to be a responsible neighbor, it is employing an aggressive integrated weed management approach of chemical, mechanical, and biological methods — spraying at optimal seasons, hand-pulling or tree removal (in the case of Russian olive), and release of biological control insects for Russian knapweed and leafy spurge. Lewis & Clark Conservation District has generously contributed to on-site weed control at both the Tenmile and Sevenmile sites.

Spraying has been deployed for the first time this year, with annual treatments anticipated for several years. A mighty crew of volunteers from Deloitte Consulting participated in a streamside weed pull in 2016, and Russian olive will be removed over the course of 2017. Other weed pulls may be scheduled to control leafy spurge in sensitive streamside areas harboring recolonizing willows.

In May, Lisa Bay accompanied Montana State University researcher Jeff Littlefield and assistant Annie deMeij in releasing the biocontrol Russian knapweed gall wasp. These tiny insects, first released in Montana in 2009, are being studied as possible control agents for this invasive species. Release sites at Sevenmile were marked with flagging and GPS points, with the hope of periodic inspections to see if the minute creatures are winning the day. Further, Lewis and Clark Weed District’s Larry Hoffman supplied leafy spurge beetles to PPLT for distribution in 2016, with the promise of more to come in 2017.

Restoration activities

As of June, restoration contractors McNeal and Associates and Confluence, Inc. are preparing the necessary permit applications in anticipation of fall restoration activities on 1.8 miles of the stream. Restoration activities will range from relatively passive actions, such as removal of rock rip-rap in the upstream (westernmost) portions, to bank recontouring and rechannelization, plugging of the old channel, and revegetation in downstream portions. A fish passage will be constructed around the on-site irrigation diversion that currently disconnects fish populations up- and downstream.

The remaining 0.4 mile of stream is slated for restoration in 2018-2019, with fundraising to begin later this year. Restoration of this last segment will likely be completed sometime in 2019.

Public access

This ambitious menu of activities will require restriction of public access for at least two years. Public health and safety concerns are implicit in spraying and construction activities, and post-construction restoration will need some time to manifest. But patience will pay off — in a relatively short while, this natural area will be ready and waiting for your footprints.

Thanks to our funders

Major funding for Sevenmile restoration has been provided by Northwestern Energy, Willow Springs Foundation, The Cross Foundation, the Future Fisheries Improvement Program, the City of Helena, and the Montana Trout Foundation. PPLT anticipates securing funding from the Montana Aquatic Resources Services in the near future.

Eliza Wiley photo
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