Cottonwood forests along Montana’s Missouri River southeast of Big Sandy are dying faster than they’re being replaced, the Great Falls Tribune reported.

That prompted Robin McQuinn of Billings to drive 265 miles to plant young trees on the banks of the river near Eagle Creek Campground on Tuesday (March 22). It sits in the shadow of sandstone walls called the “white cliffs” not far from where explorers Lewis and Clark camped in 1805, probably in the shadow of cottonwood trees.

“I can’t imagine this place without cottonwoods,” McQuinn said as she hauled buckets of water from the river to holes in the ground where spindly cottonwoods were being placed, with the hope they will some day grow tall enough to tower over the river like today’s 100-year-old trees that are succumbing to age and beavers.

McQuinn was one of several volunteers who showed up to work southeast of here in the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument to preserve the river’s iconic cottonwood forests, which provide shade for river floaters and important cover for birds, reptiles and animals in an otherwise exposed landscape.

Friends of the Missouri Breaks Monument, a nonprofit group that formed to support the area, and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) are leading the time-sensitive project.

“They are not naturally regenerating,” Brian Woolf, a BLM acting supervisory outdoor recreation planner in Fort Benton, said of cottonwoods.

Those forests were one of the reasons the monument was designated in 2001.

The monument stretches 149 miles from Fort Benton to the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge and includes six wilderness study areas and segments of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail and the Nez Perce National Historic Trail.

A 10-year project to replace the dying trees is in its fourth year.

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