Making sure the Clark Fork stays the healthy heart of Missoula

overuse along the clark fork river banks
June 9, 2015

New ‘Urban River Restoration and Access Project’ aims to improve the river corridor and recreation downtown

Summer has arrived in Montana, glazing the Missoula Valley in heat waves that make the river look oh-so-tempting. The shores of the Clark Fork come to life, as floaters, hikers, dog-walkers, birders, anglers, and swimmers flock to the cool waters to enjoy these long sunny days.

The summer scene leaves no doubt: Missoulians love our downtown river. But, sometimes, we literally love it to pieces.

As Missoula’s population grows, so does the impact on the river. Last year, an inventory by Missoula Parks and Recreation identified 33 separate user-made river paths in less than a mile of the Clark Fork. The inventory also cataloged 300 feet of eroding banks. Heavy use takes its toll on riverbanks, leading to less-than-healthy riparian areas. The reaches that see high traffic are often where you see soil erosion, more weeds, and fewer native plants like willows or cottonwoods — especially spots where no formal access point exist. Not only are these eroding riverside areas unsightly, they also dump sediment into the river and threaten the stability of riverside trails like the Kim Williams.

Overuse along our river banks strips away riparian vegetation, which is important for keeping water clean and cool.
A user-created river access erodes toward the river trail on the south bank of the Clark Fork.

Luckily, the Coalition and our partners are working to protect and restore the river by improving the ways we access the Clark Fork’s most urban stretch. This summer, we’re helping with Missoula’s new Urban River Restoration and Access Project in partnership with Missoula Parks & Recreation and the Missoula County Water Quality District to begin a fix for the worst area of erosion: the south bank of the Clark Fork River between the Higgins and Madison bridges.

And our work on the south bank of the Clark Fork is just the beginning. We’re partnering with even more stakeholders — such as Trout Unlimited, the Poverello Center, the Watershed Education Network, the Missoula Conservation District, local businesses, government agencies, and all of you — to create a larger vision for the entire downtown river corridor. Once it’s complete, this community-driven vision will help ensure that the Clark Fork River remains one of Missoula’s greatest assets long into the future.

This summer, we’ll start phase one of the project on the busiest portion of the south bank. The goal is to provide safe, convenient access points for people to enjoy the river, while repairing the damage from user-made trails that are causing significant riverbank erosion. We’ll do this by first identifying where and how people access the river, as well as what the community would like to see in terms of urban river access in the future.

The best way to answer those questions is to ask the people using the river. We’re looking for volunteers to do just that. Can you help us this summer? All it takes is a few hours strolling the river with a simple survey in hand — not a bad way to spend a hot summer afternoon! 

With your help, the Urban River Restoration and Access Project on the south bank of the Clark Fork will give us a sustainable plan for continuing to enjoy the river we all love while also making sure it stays healthy. Here are some of the options this action plan may include:

  • Improving river access points through attractive, hard-scaped points of entry;
  • Enhancing access points by providing trash and recycling bins, water fountains, benches, picnic tables, or landscaping;
  • Repairing and revegetating eroded areas;
  • Creating interpretive signs at access points; and 
  • Providing community education and outreach on sustainable river use.
The Clark Fork River lights up downtown Missoula. (Photo: Jackie Corday)
The Clark Fork River lights up downtown Missoula. (Photo: Jackie Corday)

We can all agree, hands-down, that the Clark Fork is a fabulous recreation resource. At the Coalition, we believe that the many people who use the river are also the best candidates to be the “river rockstars” who take care of this vital resource. That’s why an important part of this project is surveying the people who use the river downtown. 

What’s expected of volunteers for this project?

Volunteers will spend 2 or 3 hours distributing surveys and counting river users along the downtown stretch of the Clark Fork River. Volunteers will works in teams of 2 or 3, so bring a friend!

Surveying will happen twice a week between July 13th and September 1st. Dates and times are flexible, and you can choose to volunteer just once, or once a week. Contact for more info or to sign up.


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