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Finding Community through Watershed Stewardship

Brooke Helstrom, Big Sky Watershed Corps Member

Gallatin Watershed Council, Bozeman

Date: October 21, 2020

About a year ago, I was lucky enough to be placed with the Gallatin Watershed Council (GWC) in Bozeman for my Big Sky Watershed Corps AmeriCorps term. A recent college graduate, I found myself for the first time in a community completely outside of the familiar perimeters of academics. Having grown up in New Jersey and gone to school in California, I didn’t know what to expect when I arrived in Bozeman in January. However, not only did I find community here, I was greeted with a warmth and kindness that carried me through my service.

Two Watershed Stewards Planting Willows at the East Gallatin Preserve in April. Photo Credit: Brooke Helstrom

One of my most prevalent experiences with community building was through working on our Gallatin Watershed Stewards (GWS) program. GWS is a framework for local volunteers and community members to engage in watershed stewardship in the Lower Gallatin Watershed. Through grant funding from the Montana Watershed Coordination Council’s Watershed Fund and Montana DEQ, we were able to assist with a restoration project along the East Gallatin River just north of Bozeman. In April, I recruited 20 Gallatin Watershed Stewards to help plant willows at the project site.

This was my first-ever organized volunteer event with GWC – I remember agonizing over tiny, uncontrollable details, like where all of the cars were going to park and what would happen if someone’s car got stuck on the (very well maintained) half mile dirt road on the way to the project site. I got to the site two hours in advance and set up feeble traffic signs, only for the signs to later blow away in the wind. My worries all proved to be unfounded, however, as the event was a great success: we were able to plant 4,000 willow stakes.

Volunteers wrapping trees at the East Gallatin Preserve in October. Photo Credit: Brooke Helstrom

I hosted a second volunteer day at the same project site in October where Gallatin Watershed Stewards wrapped 160 trees with wire mesh to encourage coexistence with the beavers that frequent the area. Several of the October volunteers had also helped out on the project site in April. Returning a few months later, they got to see the progress of the site and the thriving willows they had planted a few months prior. Being able to see the impact of our work both strengthened our collective connection to the watershed and served as a microcosm of the grander watershed community.

Brooke conducting stream monitoring through Gallatin Stream Teams, a branch of Gallatin Watershed Stewards. Photo Credit: Torie Haraldson

There is no secret recipe to establishing community. There wasn’t one epiphany-esque moment when I felt like I was officially indoctrinated into the Bozeman area watershed community. My term of service was a sometimes gradual, sometimes steep road that eventually brought me to where I am today.

The watershed community, especially in Bozeman, is made up of amazing individuals who work together under a common goal: to preserve our watershed for generations to come. And through my AmeriCorps position, I get to be a part of this community and play a part in the fulfillment of its mission.

Big Sky Watershed Corps is an AmeriCorps program that places young professionals in Montana’s watershed communities to make a measurable difference in local conservation initiatives. Members carry out watershed research, project planning and implementation, education and outreach, and community engagement activities.