Young angler on O'dell Creek - Photo: Alex Diekmann
Editor’s Note: For TPL’s Land&People magazine, freelance journalist Todd Wilkinson has written about Yellowstone wildlife, city parks in Atlanta and Newark, and conservation in northern Maine. In today’s guest blog, he reflects on a conservation project close to his home in Bozeman, Montana–the restoration of the wetlands of O’Dell Creek, a tributary of the Madison River much loved by fly-fishers. I love Todd’s work and have just assigned him to write a story on federal conservation efforts for the fall issue of the magazine. By the way, the photo above was taken by Alex Diekmann, a friend of Todd’s who happens also to be the TPL project manager on the O’Dell Creek easement. The boy fishing is Alex’s son Liam. Enjoy the post.
When I was eight years old, I met Louis. He was the central protagonist of E.B. White’s children’s classic, The Trumpet of the Swan, a book then hot off the presses. It’s the story of a swan, born without a voice, that tries to overcome muteness by learning to play the trumpet.
The tale was set not far from where I am presently standing, viewing ivory white birds that, very well, could be the real life cousins of those that inspired Mr. White many years ago.
Just as a trumpeter swan can learn to overcome seemingly debilitating challenges and sing again, so, too, can stretches of water.
To see a trumpeter in full winter plumage glide beneath the crest of mountains, setting down upon open flows encircled by ice, is an illustration of pure majesty. One can also hear it in the mating cries of sandhill cranes that soon will arrive in the same place as the swans, reaching Montana again after spending the snowy months at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico.
It is a remarkable thing knowing that only a decade ago, such a convergence of avian icons would not have happened along the banks of O’Dell Spring Creek.
When President Barack Obama flew into Bozeman last summer (2009), first for a town hall meeting on health care and then to take the First Family on a vacation to Yellowstone, rumors abounded about a secret side trip.
Mr. Obama was slated to spend part of his visit on a stream, engaging in something he had never done before: Casting for trout with a flyrod. Quickly, many wondered where he would go, Montana being a state known for many legendary blue ribbon waters.
For a while, at least, speculation focused on O’Dell Creek in the pastoral Madison Valley near Ennis, revered by anglers and birders alike. O’Dell is a wonder of private land restoration, thanks to ambitious behind-the-scenes work done by an extraordinary group of collaborators, including the Trust For Public Land.
As a tributary to the Madison River, O’Dell Creek suffered from severe impairment in the 20th century, when it was ditched and channeled to drain a wetland. The intent was to provide more upland grasses for cattle to eat on the Granger and Longhorn ranches. The manipulation wasn’t done in malice but rather without a full understanding of its ecological consequences, recognized today by a new generation.
The re-routing of the creek not only altered O’Dell’s natural function, but it damaged water quality and the health of the riparian corridor, including the prevalence of aquatic insects that are the lifeblood of trout moving out of the Madison River to spawn.
“The repairing of O’Dell Creek has sprung from a remarkable partnership,” says Alex Diekmann, a local TPL project manager who has helped protect 225 square miles of private land in the Madison Valley by working with ranchers on conservation easements. “Anyone will tell you the real stars of this initiative are the ranchers.”
Between landowner Jeff Laszlo of the Granger and his neighbor on the Longhorn, an array of assistance provided by state and federal agencies, and added underwriting support from Trout Unlimited, Ducks Unlimited, and the power company, PPL-Montana, O’Dell is considered a model.
A major portion of the 11 miles forming the O’Dell system has been returned to natural contours and its marshy edge replanted with willow to enhance habitat value for migratory and resident birds.
TPL’s vital role was working with the Montana Land Reliance and owners of the Granger and Longhorn ranches on conservation easements. “Restoration and permanent land conservation go hand in hand,” Diekmann says. “Conservation easements ensure that all of the hard work put into bringing this creek back to life will still deliver dividends long after all of us are gone.”
He notes another important element. In the age of climate change, aquatic biologists throughout the West are concerned about the impact of rising temperatures on cold-water fisheries. Hotter, drier conditions will affect not only the abundance of water but also heat it up, harming the productivity of wild trout.
The deepening of O’Dell Creek and lining it with trees already has resulted in the water, as it bubbles up from underground springs, remaining cooler and friendlier to fish. In addition, the number of bird species using the wetland corridor has increased every year to more than 80 today. More than 2,500 sandhill cranes call the Madison Valley home and trumpeter swans have found refuge in the currents of O’Dell that stay ice free in winter.
“The ecological value of streams like this is only going to increase in the decades ahead,” Diekmann says. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and his counterparts in the U.S. Department of Agriculture held up O’Dell as a prototype for collaborative public-private restoration initiatives nationwide.
Yet for all of the astounding progress being celebrated, the job still is not done. Recent troubles on Wall Street and the ripple effects in the federal budget and private philanthropy have put on hold the proposed restoration of the last few miles of O’Dell Creek.
“We’re almost there,” Diekmann says, referring to lower stretches of the creek near Ennis that merge with the Madison River, still in need of repair. “It’s a crucial piece in a much larger spectacular puzzle.”
Unbelievably, nearly half of the ranchland in this glacier-chiseled valley rests is protected by conservation easements.
“There is as much goodwill involved with the O’Dell project and conservation in the Madison Valley as any other location I have seen,” Diekmann says. “People who live here understand the connection between stewardship and a high quality of life.”
As for the president, inclement weather unfortunately prevented him from gracing O’Dell Creek, though he ultimately did make his casting debut at a different TPL conservation project, along the Gallatin River.
Both President Obama and Interior Secretary Salazar have vowed to come back. Awaiting them is a rejuvenated riparian corridor that like the trumpet of Louis the swan, resounds again with the notes of a natural symphony.