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NorthWestern Energy commissioned famed Montana artist Monte Dolack to paint “Restoring Our Waters,” which was unveiled on a beautiful sunny morning to the tune of hundreds of wild bird calls. PHOTO BY MIRA BRODY

O’Dell Creek project reverses years of damage, restores wetland habitat

By Mira Brody EBS STAFF

“A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they shall never sit” – ancient Greek proverb

ENNIS – Famed Montana landscape artist Monte Dolack stands in front of a breathtaking framed piece featuring a sweeping wetland, crane, geese, elk, antelope and an imposing silhouette of Sphinx Mountain in the background. As he presents the piece, titled “Restoring Our Waters,” to a small audience in a field overlooking a thriving wetland, he explains that it took him multiple iterations to get the landscape and its inhabitants right—layers of previous versions are visible underneath the finished product. It’s fitting, because the landscape that it depicts, the one behind him in the Madison Valley during the art unveiling on May 6, is a conservation project that took many decades to become the success it is today.

The O’Dell Creek fish, wildlife and plant restoration project began in 2004 to repair damage to the area from the 1950s caused by unbeknownst landowners who used the natural flowing streams for farming irrigation. 

Since the project began in 2004, 15 miles of creek channel have been restored to their original snake-like pattern and 700 acres of wetlands created. The ecosystem is vital to Montana’s native species of fish, birds, plant life and wildlife. When the project began, only 29 species of bird lived there. Now, there are 116 different bird species that thrive, including 18 Montana species of concern—a term FWP uses to designate flora or fauna that need imminent conservation action. The project was made possible through a partnership between Jeff Laszlo, managing partner and fourth generation rancher of Granger Ranches LP, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Northwestern Energy.

The O’Dell Creek fish, wildlife and plant restoration project began in 2004 to repair damage that occurred in the area in the 1950s. Since then, 15 miles of creek channel have been restored. PHOTO BY MIRA BRODY

“The interesting thing about the partnership is that it included people who were fisheries based, people who were wildlife based, people who were migratory bird based, and they all brought their interests and specialties to this so that as we worked we considered all the things that were going to be using this area,” says Laszlo, who is chairman of the Western Landowners Alliance, a photographer and avid conservationist.

The Laszlos and Grangers have owned Granger Ranches since 1936. “As a result we’ve improved water quality … we’ve seen a huge increase in migratory birds, particularly waterfowl species, and the temperatures have come down, the fisheries have improved, all that water is flowing into the Madison River for all of its usages including energy …  recreation, agriculture and probably municipal uses. It’s a project that has multiple layers.”

Since 2000, NorthWestern Energy has funded 63 projects at O’Dell Creek and invested $3.7 million with the help of partner contributions. The project is now in its 18th stage of ongoing restoration—Laszlo says he’s unsure how many phases will complete the project but he estimates it could go on for another decade. In 2018, the three partners behind the O’Dell project received the Society for Ecological Restoration’s Northwest Restoration Project of the Year Award, an award that recognizes the important wildlife habitats that have thrived following restoration projects.

As a way to celebrate the milestone and raise money for the Madison Valley community, NorthWestern Energy commissioned “Restoring Our Waters,” which was unveiled on a beautiful sunny morning to the tune of hundreds of wild bird calls, and a nearby moose—wild residents that prove the project’s success.

“Monte, the work captures this place, captures what Jeff and others are doing, and will help raise good money, but will also help tell the story very broadly,” said NorthWestern Energy CEO Robert Rowe during the unveiling.

“Restoring Our Waters” will tour its way throughout the region first at the Ennis Chamber of Commerce to welcome tourists for the summer fishing season, then it will make its way over the Madison Range to a gallery in the Big Sky Town Center. It is $25 for an unsigned print, $75 for a signed print and the money goes toward a nonprofit called Gardens, Resources, Outdoors, Wildlife and Watersheds, or GROWW, and Good Thymes Camp, a youth program made possible by Madison Farm to Fork, the Madison Conservation District and the Madison School District. The camp engages local area youth in outdoor activities tied to farming and healthy ecosystem stewardship.

“The premise really of GROWW is that if our students learn about agriculture, soils, growing food, water quality and wildlife in a hands-on way, they’re going to be the future stewards of our land,” said Janet Bean-Dochnahl, vice president of Madison Valley Farm to Fork. “So it is a good fit with your program,” she addressed the crowd.

Dolack was born and raised in Montana, studied art at Montana State University and University of Montana and has spent a lifetime documenting the state’s breathtaking landscapes and wildlife with his brushes and acrylic paint ever since. He is known for his “Invader Series,” which explores our relationship with our surrounding environment, and is featured in museums across the world. In 2000 he was named by the Missoulian and The Montana Century as the 100 most influential Montanans of the twentieth century. He is also the recipient of the Fine Arts Alumni award from UM and the 2008 Montana Governors Award for the Arts.

“That’s been one of the most rewarding things about my work, doing commissioned pieces around Montana—the learning experience is wonderful,” said Dolack, who says he spent many hours with Laszlo out in the landscape, learning about it from the man who spent so much of his life here. “It’s like I’m constantly learning something new and I’m trying to reveal that in a visual format.”

Dolack says his grandfather and father were both miners, unaware of the impact their career paths had on the land, like many other ancestors before. The beauty of this project, he says, is that it came to be by working together to recognize those devastating mistakes of the past; collaborators worked to fix the problem instead of pointing fingers.

“I’m proud to be bringing what I can to this project so there’s at least a visual and hopefully … that will sum up what we’re doing and trying to do,” said Dolack, sweeping his hand across the painting. “All of it: the plants and birds and animals that have returned.”

Restoration work will continue to be observed by biologists and wildlife experts as nature reclaims the land and heals from the years of damage. This year, through a partnership with NorthWestern Energy, the Madison River wildlife and fisheries program will take shape, marking the implementation of phase 18 which will help bolster Madison River fish populations. The area is not only home to trumpeter swans and a breeding area for Sandhill cranes, but plays an important role in local agriculture, providing clean water and hydraulic energy for residents in the valley—a symbiotic benefit that will serve generations of all species to come.

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