Wide Open Spaces: Untamed

March 2022

by anna rogers | photos by jamie blotske

“The earth has music for those who listen.”  

- William Shakespeare 

The Yellowstone River 

One last major river in the lower 48 states remains undammed. Its waters provide invaluable resources to people and wildlife alike. The Yellowstone River is a connector and sustainer, and it is the lifeblood of Billings.  

Preserving its banks and providing ways for the community to access and enjoy them is paramount. This untamed river demands reverence and wonder, and what better way to celebrate it than with beautiful, natural spaces along its waters in the largest municipal area touched by its flow? 

What We’ve Got

One organization in Billings has made it its mission to improve and maintain public lands along the Yellowstone River for the enjoyment of the community and its visitors – Yellowstone River Parks Association, familiarly known as YRPA. Founded in 1991, YRPA had the vision to bring a Yellowstone River Greenway to the Billings area. Through donations of time, talent, and resources, YRPA began creating, improving, and maintaining parks and trails along the river.  

The organization’s slogan is simple – “Go with the flow.” Over the years, this mantra and their clear vision have yielded a significant impact. YRPA now either owns or helps to manage more than 2,000 acres of publicly accessible natural parkland in Billings. 

Most of YRPA’s parks host over 100 visitors a day (Riverfront & Norm’s Island see over 200) and offer visitors an opportunity to connect with nature. Developed trails wind through untamed natural areas – golden grasses, chirping birds, flowing water, cottonwood stands, teeming insects, and still ponds. A priority is placed on protecting native plants and conserving wildlife habitat – and inviting people to immerse themselves in it all. 

Two Moon Park

YRPA parks consist of Riverfront Park, Two Moon Park, Earl Guss Park, Montana Audubon Center, Four Dances Natural Area, John H. Dover Memorial Park, Joel’s Pond, Amanda White Homestead Park, Blue Creek Boat Launch and Fishing Access Site, and Blue Creek Bicycle Park. Between these are 8 miles of Yellowstone River frontage. Their collective acreage invites Billings’ residents to break from city life and enjoy recreation, education, peacefulness, and community. 

A unique opportunity to engage with YRPA’s wide open spaces is at the Montana Audubon Center. “It has become an integral part of the Billings educational community,” says Roger Williams, a past president and member of YRPA. The MAC welcomes over 50 preschoolers each week for outdoor, nature-based schooling.  Their ANTS program (Audubon Naturalists in Schools) provides year-long, field-trip-based programming to elementary school students in Billings and the surrounding area. At the MAC and other areas, high schools and both colleges use YRPA parks as outdoor labs and classrooms. 

What’s Happening at Dover Park? 

John H. Dover Memorial Park is a 626-acre park, with only 140-acres open to the public currently. The park is due to the vision and philanthropy of the landowners, the Dover-Sindelar family, and named for John Dover, the family’s patriarch, who homesteaded the area beginning in 1884. Most of the park is under perpetual conservation easement through The Nature Conservancy. YRPA volunteers have gradually restored the pastures on the southernmost 140-acres over five years, adding three miles of groomed trails and a trailhead with a trail parking lot, picnic facilities, and vault toilets.  

Hundreds of volunteers from the nearby Harvest Church were instrumental in opening the park to the public in 2016. In 2021 negotiations were completed to secure the deeds to the 288-acre Dover-Sindelar Ranch and the 198-acre quarry. YRPA and its partners will develop a plan for the preservation and restoration of these properties and their buildings. Historical buildings and unaltered sagebrush prairie and wetlands will be preserved. Agricultural and other commercial operations will be restored to a more natural state. The quarry will become a lake stocked with native fish species. Dogs are not welcome in the current 140-acre park, but a fenced 10-acre dog park is under construction. Once complete, the enlarged John H. Dover Memorial Park will be open for the public’s enjoyment, free of charge. 

Why It Matters 

photo courtesy of Montana Audubon Center

These wide-open spaces along the Yellowstone bring many benefits to our community. “Trails have increased recreational alternatives,” Williams says. “Many acres of precious native habitat have been preserved or restored for the benefit of the environment. All these activities have added to the quality of life for the residents of Yellowstone County and are a stimulus for economic development.” 

Children are experiencing education outside of four walls in environments with uneven ground, changing conditions, and nature as their teacher. Dr. Emmi Pikler, a Hungarian pediatrician and professor who introduced groundbreaking ideas on childhood development, said, “If we provide enough space and possibilities for moving freely, then the children will move as well as animals: skillfully, simply, securely, naturally.” The opportunities for Billings’ children to encounter nature at a young age pay huge dividends as they grow and develop. 

photo courtesy of Montana Audubon Center

These wide-open spaces along the Yellowstone bring many benefits to our community. “Trails have increased recreational alternatives,” Williams says. “Many acres of precious native habitat have been preserved or restored for the benefit of the environment. All these activities have added to the quality of life for the residents of Yellowstone County and are a stimulus for economic development.” 

Children are experiencing education outside of four walls in environments with uneven ground, changing conditions, and nature as their teacher. Dr. Emmi Pikler, a Hungarian pediatrician and professor who introduced groundbreaking ideas on childhood development, said, “If we provide enough space and possibilities for moving freely, then the children will move as well as animals: skillfully, simply, securely, naturally.” The opportunities for Billings’ children to encounter nature at a young age pay huge dividends as they grow and develop. 

Who’s Making It Happen? 

The 2000+ acres of YRPA land result from an outpouring of community and organizational support. YRPA volunteers put in more than 8,000 hours each year to do it. 

“We retirees need something to make us feel useful,” says Williams. “After 45 years working in offices, I sought outdoor, physical activities to keep me stimulated. I also wanted to keep learning new things. Volunteering with YRPA provides all the above. At the end of the day, I usually can look back on a concrete accomplishment.” 

Alongside the spectacular volunteer support are generous donors and partnerships with local organizations that share YRPA’s vision for parks and trails. Organizations like Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks, Montana Natural Resources Damage Program, Our Montana, City of Billings, and Pedal United have all played vital roles in developing and maintaining YRPA land. 

YRPA invites you to partner with them in their work along the Yellowstone. Cash donations support day-to-day activities, and they are always eager to find new volunteers to help with work in the parks or with the organization's administration. 

Originally printed in the March 2022 issue of Simply Local Magazine

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