Harsh winter leads to summer woes

Missouri Breaks monument damaged by ice jams
Friday, June 28, 2019
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Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument Manager Zane Fulbright, left, and BLM equipment operator Mike Fosjord stand by a silt-covered road at the Wood Hawk Recreation Area.  

Photo by Charlie Denison

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Zane Fulbright, right, talks with Bureau of Land Management seasonal rangers at the Wood Hawk Campground Wednesday. Pieces of broken picnic tables remain on site after ice jams took a toll in March.  

Photo by Charlie Denison

Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument Manager Zane Fulbright is getting used to expecting the unexpected.

In March, ice jams on the Missouri River wreaked havoc on some popular camping spots, namely the Wood Hawk Recreation Area northeast of Winifred.

“The ice crushed picnic tables, destroyed fire rings and damaged the restroom facility,” said Fulbright. “The toilet still isn’t serviceable.”

Fences were mangled and cottonwoods planted in 2011 were demolished. This was especially disappointing, as Fulbright said, “cottonwoods don’t rebound like willows.”

The James Kipp Recreation Area also suffered.

“The campsite was underwater for three days,” Fulbright said. “I started working with the Bureau of Land Management in 2005, and I’ve never seen ice jams to this extent…they flooded all six dumpsters and three dumpsters floated out to the field. Toilets were flooded and had layers of silt. We had to pump all the toilets. We are still waiting for the truck to come and pump some of the remaining toilets.”

Electrical work also needed to be repaired, so an electrician came to the site and reworked all the boxes. Potable water systems were also knocked out of commission. And, to make matters worse, all this occurred with little time before paddlefishing seasoning.

“We had to get the boat ramp cleaned off, the roads cleaned up and a pad cleaned off for Fish, Wildlife and Parks to set up a trailer for their check station,” said Fulbright. “We’ve got the campground opened now and water should be up and running next week.”

BLM equipment operator Mike Fosjord said it’s been quite an undertaking.

“Mother Nature did a good job this year,” he said. “It’s been a challenge.”

Fosjord said this from his seat on a skid steer while removing silt from the road at lower Wood Hawk.

“I’ve never seen it silted like this,” he said. “It’s got to be cleared. If you get in the goo, you’re not going anywhere.”

That’s especially the case when the roads are wet, ice jams or no ice jams, but, for now, Fulbright said the crew is doing “all they can” to keep the monument in the best condition possible. Seasonal park rangers Jason Sevigny and Lisa Joe Villa are two of those working to repair the sites.

“We’re getting there,” said Villa. “It’s especially hard when areas are impacted that aren’t accessible by vehicles. Jason and I have been floating the river and surveying the spots as we go along. We’ve stumbled upon some massive driftwood piles, we’ve seen bark stripped off trees and we’ve seen a lot of ground churned up, which has made it hard to find a flat place to pitch a tent.”

“We are just trying to keep the sites up to the standard visitors expect to see,” Sevigny added.

This is particularly strenuous, as BLM is short-staffed.

“It’s harder to clean up the campgrounds, maintain fences and do some other work,” Fulbright said. “Normally we have six seasonal workers but this year – as a result of the furlough and losing seasonals to other jobs – that’s not the case. With these ice jams, we’ve all got more work to do, plus we’re not budgeted for it.”

Fulbright said the extent of the damage caused by the ice jams adds up.

“Between materials, contract services and our own labor, we are looking at upwards of $100,000,” he said. “We’re looking at $14,000 for toilet pumping alone.”

Surveying the destruction, Fulbright said it’s hard to say what led to such a bad ice jam.

“I don’t know if it was just the right weather conditions on when the river opened up or if we just had real thick ice in some areas. I don’t really know,” he said.

Although there is still some work to do, Wood Hawk and Kipp are open for camping, and all are welcome, as Fulbright said, ”there is much to see in the Breaks.”

“The Monument is some of our more accessible public land, and it’s so diverse in the wildlife and the geology and the culture,” he said. “You get a little bit of everything out here.”

Those interested in seeing the Breaks, however, need to be prepared, Fulbright added.

“You never know when the roads are going to be impassable and there isn’t a lot of readily available potable water,” Fulbright said, “and – no matter what – you’re going to get dirty out here.”