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Planting the Seed(Ling)S For Watershed Success

Abigail Toretsky, Big Sky Watershed Corps Member

Lolo Watershed Group and Lolo National Forest, Missoula

Date: October 21, 2020

I gathered my rain gear, field backpack, and a water bottle and drove the familiar route down Highway 12. After greeting the volunteers, we piled into the back of a couple of ‘rattletraps’ (a Montanan word I learned for a beat-up, but loved, pick-up truck) and headed through the burned remains of the forest to the planting site. I explained how riparian plants, like the shrubs we would be planting, help slow water flow on the post-fire landscape to retain sediment, create shading for cooler creek temperatures, and provide wildlife habitat. Everyone scattered along the creek with shrubs and hoedads in hand to begin revegetation. After months of planning and rescheduling, the planting day had finally arrived.

Woods rose and red-osier dogwood, along with thinleaf alder and sandbar willow (in boxes) ready to be taken to the planting site on the back of the ‘rattletrap.’

As the day wore on, the number of unplanted shrubs slowly dwindled as volunteers and local professionals planted the seedlings amongst the charred trees and the abundant fireweed. My nerves from the night before faded as I took a moment to appreciate everyone who had come to volunteer. By the end of the day, 488 new shrubs stood tall and healthy.

After the planting project, these red-osier dogwoods are adapting well to their new home along the creek. Hopefully these dogwoods, and the rest of the shrubs, will slow water movement and stabilize riparian soils along the fire-impacted creek.

As a Big Sky Watershed Corps (BSWC) member, I had the unique opportunity to learn how to manage a grant through a funding opportunity provided by the Montana Watershed Coordination Council (MWCC) and Montana DEQ. This project was my first grant writing experience and my first time managing a restoration project. I had a lot to learn.

I gained invaluable skills ranging from navigating challenging historical relationships between private landowners and the federal government to managing a project budget. I even learned how to use a hoedad to successfully plant a red-osier dogwood that was as tall as me. Through grasping all the details necessary for planting restoration projects, I built capacity for one of my host sites, the Lolo Watershed Group (LWG) by making connections to regional conservation districts, non-profit organizations, and the Montana DNRC seedling nursery.

I am triumphantly holding the long fire hose after helping out the new shrubs with some extra water. One of the perks of a fall planting day means fewer watering sessions before winter!

LWG’s mission is to understand and conserve the unique characteristics of the Lolo Creek watershed, including its wildlife and fisheries, scenic and rural character, local agriculture, and recreational opportunities while supporting private property and water rights. Our work ranges from connecting private landowners to federal and state funding opportunities to educating the community on watershed dynamics. I contributed to these initiatives by coordinating educational programming at Travelers’ Rest State Park, as well as managing the revegetation project. As a split member between LWG and the Lolo National Forest, I was fortunate to also experience Forest Service field work such as road surveys to determine contributing sediment sources to the watershed, stream discharge monitoring for water rights applications, and large wood counts and placement projects to create favorable habitat for threatened salmonid species.

LWG collaborated with Travelers’ Rest State Park to create “Trekker Kids” activities. These lessons taught local students about the Lolo Watershed, non-point source pollutants and macroinvertebrates.

This year has brought unpredictable challenges and obstacles. My planting project characterizes my BSWC experience: I turned frustration and confusion into newfound capabilities and confidence. MWCC has unrelentingly supported me as I have been slowly learning grant management and restoration project implementation. I am beyond grateful for my term as a BSWC member with the Lolo National Forest and the Lolo Watershed Group and the connections I have fostered with Montana watershed stewards in the non-profit, academic, state
and federal communities.

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.