Where the wild things are: Missoula opens Broadway Island natural park, river access

Chris Behan, assistant director of the Missoula Redevelopment Agency, right, and Morgan Valliant, director of the city’s conservation lands program, explore Broadway Island on Friday morning. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

An effort to transform a Clark Fork River island into a natural oasis in the heart of Missoula has played out quietly over the past year.

Old snags now stand above the river plain, beckoning bugs and birds. Invasive trees like elm and maple have been removed, and saplings from native species have replaced them.

This is the evolving face of Missoula’s newest city park on Broadway Island.

“At the time we bought it, 75% of this island was covered with nonnative species,” said Chris Behan, assistant director of the Missoula Redevelopment Agency. “We’re going to have true riparian habitat and have the ability for the public to come down and visit it. It’s almost a wild experience right in the middle of town.”

After decades of dreaming and nearly nine years of planning, the city officially opened Broadway Island to the public on Friday. The park covers roughly seven acres, though its size changes each year depending upon the ebb and flow of the Clark Fork River.

This year, the island grew in size with new sedimentation. It also gained two new bridges, leading visitors from Broadway down to the floodplain, where ducks and traffic make equal noise.

It’s that blend of urban and wild that gives the island its unique qualities.

“It’s really rare that you have opportunities to open up a whole new natural area in the heart of Missoula,” said Morgan Valliant, the city’s conservation lands director. “Having the opportunity to actually have a spot where people can get down and connect with nature and see the river is rare.”

Cheyenne walks her dog on Broadway Island on Friday morning. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

The city acquired the property in 2011 for roughly $25,000 and a pledge to recognize one of the former landowners, Joe and Dorothy Hacker. Between the acquisition, restoration, engineering and bridge work, the investment represents a sum of around $800,000.

While restoration efforts are new, the island was first considered in the city’s 1990s urban renewal plan. The city sought to increase access to the river throughout the urban core, and the island served as a prime opportunity.

In the years since, MRA has invested in a number of downtown riverfront parks and trails, Broadway Island being the latest.

“It’s really been going on for decades, the idea of getting people down here to enjoy this area,” said Behan. “The only sandy beach in downtown Missoula is down here.”

MRA last August inked the final deal with Morrison-Maierle to complete the project’s final design, including the two bridges. Once the project was set in motion, the city’s parks and conservation crews began what Valliant described as a full-scale restoration.

The island was choked with nonnative species at the time, including Siberian elm, Norway maple and golden willow. The trees out competed native species, such as black cottonwoods and ponderosa pine, effectively changing the habitat sought by migrating species.

“We find through town there’s a host of nonnative species that used to be used for Missoula’s urban trees,” Valliant said. “But they’re really bad for our riparian areas. Our local riparian areas are our most biologically diverse habitat types in all Montana, and they’re threatened.”

Ducks take to the cold waters surrounding Broadway Island. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

The remnants are of the old vegetation lingers, including snags and the stumps of nonnative trees. City crews removed most of those trees, allowing native species to make their way back.

“We weren’t getting the recruitment because these nonnative, invasive species have been crowding them out,” Valliant said. “We’ve spent a lot of time doing tree work down here to transition that forest into something that will serve the habitat needs for all the critters that use the area, and make it more open and pleasant to walk through.”

Clearing the island also played a public safety role. For decades, the property has attracted more transients and criminal activity than it did recreational users. Opening the island to the wider population will eventually change the culture, the city believes.

“The chief of police once told us that we won’t police ourselves out of this thing,” Behan said. “We need to change the culture if we can. That’s the other piece of this – increasing the public use and changing the culture.”

Valliant agreed.

“Homelessness is one of those societal issues we need to deal with as a city, but that’s not going to stop us from opening new parks and new natural areas,” he said. “We’re still going to open great parks for the public. We do find that when you have public access and people start to use it, those other issues disappear.”