Last Monday was a big day at the Coalition-owned Dry Cottonwood Creek Ranch in the upper Clark Fork valley. Over 50 students from 9th, 11th, and 12th grades at Powell County High School visited the ranch for the first half of the Coalition’s “Hands on the Ranch” program, and spent a gorgeous fall day gathering field data from different areas of the property.
The theme of the day was science—gathering data, taking notes, and trying out theories. The Coalition is working hard to improve stream health on the small creek—called Dry Cottonwood Creek—that runs through the property, so students were asked to give us an assessment of riparian well-being, and let us know how they thought things were going on the ground.
They went to work quickly and thoroughly—and ended up producing a riparian assessment for Dry Cottonwood Creek using a methodology adapted from the Natural Resource Conservation Service. About half of the 50 students analyzed the state of the creek at the lower end near its confluence with the Clark Fork River, while the other half went about two miles upstream to check out creek health in the upper stretches. The students quantified a variety of impacts to the stream, including: the amount of erosion on the stream banks, the extent of trampling damage, the number and types of riparian trees and shrubs, the type of substrate in the creek, the scope of browsing damage on plants, and more. Finally, the students tallied up scores and gave each section of the creek an overall rating.
And the day didn’t end there. Lots of students had plenty of ideas as to why the creek might not be as healthy as it could be. It might be that noxious weeds are choking out the native plants. Or, livestock coming down to water might be causing bank erosion and sediment to pile up in the creek. Maybe there isn’t enough water in the creek. Maybe we need to plant more willows to stabilize the streambanks.
But, like a few ninth-graders pointed out to Ranchlands Program Manager Bryce Andrews, things seem to be getting a little bit better. The new fencing that Bryce put in this past spring seems to be keeping livestock impacts in check on the lower stretches. And, like one 12th grader noted, if we change the way we use the water to irrigate, maybe there will be more water for the stream.
At the end of the day, (after a quick creek jumping contest), everyone loaded up in the buses to head back into town. But the Coalition’s “Hands on the Ranch” program doesn’t stop with last week’s assessment. Next spring, this same group of 50 students from Powell Co. High will return to the ranch with a big task to complete. We’ll be planting dozens of riparian shrubs and plants along the reaches of Dry Cottonwood Creek that seem most in-need of a little “native touch,” and the students will be right there with us, digging holes and spreading native seed to help give the creek a fresh start.
A big thanks to partners who made this project possible, including Matt Vincent with the Clark Fork Watershed Education Project, Jessica Anderson and Pat Bannon from Powell County High School, Stephanie LaPorte from Dan Spencer’s graduate-level EVST class, Renee Myers from the Watershed Restoration Coalition, Karen Laitala and Kristine Anderson from Powell County Weed District, Geoff Anderson from NRCS-Deer Lodge, and Brandi Steinebach from Deer Lodge County Conservation District. , and to our funders, the Deer Lodge County Conservation District, the PPL Montana Community Fund, the Plum Creek Foundation, and the Steele-Reese Foundation.