Rock Creek confluence the perfect outdoor classroom

Drew Lefebvre, a teaching naturalist with the Natural History Center, sits with Lowell Elementary School students at Rock Creek during an outdoor class. (Photo by Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

By Martin Kidston

ROCK CREEK – Peering through their binoculars, a group of fifth-grade students from Lowell Elementary School scoured the landscape not far from where Rock Creek pours cold and clear into the Clark Fork River.

Out on a daylong field trip with the Montana Natural History Center, most of the students spent the afternoon scouting for flora and fauna, largely unaware of the political debate that embroiled this 270-acre plot of land just a few short years ago.

Now the confluence is better known as an outdoor classroom.

“This is a great spot for us because it’s close enough to Missoula where we can access it pretty easily,” said Drew Lefebvre, a teaching naturalist with the Natural History Center. “It’s a great opportunity to show students there are still beautiful wild places, even when you’re surrounded by civilization.”

Had the politics turned out differently back in the mid-2000s, this open ground near the confluence of two significant western Montana waterways would be a lot more crowded than schoolchildren find it these days.

Back then, an Oregon developer had embarked on plans to construct a 36-lot subdivision. He excavated a five-acre pond, erected an earthen berm, cut an access road across a hay meadow, and brought power to the site.

Then the Montana Department of Environmental Quality ordered the developer to stop digging without a permit. A group of citizens filed suit, claiming the developer had circumvented Missoula County’s subdivision regulations and violated the Clean Water Act, among other things.

The episode lingers as a distant memory, one softened by the Five Valleys Land Trust, which purchased the property in 2013 for a reported $1.6 million. The acquisition set the parcel on a different course, one more suited to the classroom activities unfolding under Lefebvre’s watch.

“What’s incredible about it now, not only is it not going to be a subdivision, it’s also in the process of being restored back into desirable habitat for wildlife,” said Whitney Schwab, philanthropy director with Five Valleys. “It’s such a critical area for wildlife habitat and having this acreage is great for that.”

As Lefebvre’s class recorded their findings in a lesson on being a naturalist, Schwab led the assemblage across a field, the scars of past excavations still evident in the ground. While the pond has been drained and filled – courtesy of the heavy equipment program at Missoula College – the contours of a subdivider’s bygone vision for Montana living can still be seen.

Work to restore the property to a more natural setting is nearly complete, representing five years of contouring and grading. The University of Montana’s ecological restoration program plans to restore the vegetation and bring the weeds under control.

Whitney Schwab with Five Valleys Land Trust and Lucy Beighle, a consultant, stand near the Rock Creek confluence and discuss the property’s ongoing restoration work. (Photo by Martin Kidston/Missoula Current?

“It takes years to take hold, but we’re working on weed management and re-establishing desirable plants,” said Schwab. “We’re doing our best to get it back to a desirable state.”

That effort has come a long way over the past decade. Those who remember the parcel before – back when it was ready to accept its first homes – speak favorably of the changes and what the future holds.

The 70 acres to the east of Rock Creek Road are already open to the public. The property to the west will open next spring with trails and signage, including that depicting the rich Native American history attached to the confluence.

“Five years from now, our goal is for folks to use it, and for educational partnerships to continue and grow,” said Schwab. “It’s not our intention to own it forever. We’re happy to own it and manage it until the right long-term owner comes along.”

That education is already strong and includes the University of Montana’s bird-banding program, as well as the Natural History Center’s outdoor lessons on naturalism and adaptation.

In the shade of a pine tree, the students from Lowell sketched their findings and talked of science. Theirs is just one of 67 classrooms across the greater Missoula area touched by the Natural History Center’s programs.

Their fifth-grade teacher, Holly Jasperson, believes the current use of the confluence property has a higher value than what was unfolding just a decade ago.

“All children should be able to get out and enjoy what they have in their own country,” said Jasperson. “We’re hoping this program will carry on so their families will want to come out with them, and they can share what they’ve learned.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com