by Kristi Drake
I said goodbye to a good friend last week. Earl Guss was a deity in trail building in Billings, and I respected and admired him immensely for everything he and his colleagues at YRPA have accomplished in the past 30 + years.
As I was at his side in the hospital the evening I visited, he brought up the fact that I’d wanted to interview him about how YRPA managed to create the favorite parks and trails so many Billings residents enjoy, but hadn’t done so yet. After visiting for a while, I asked him if he’d like me to interview him now. He happily obliged.
YRPA manages many favorites you may recognize or frequent: Norm’s Island, Two Moon Park and Dover Park. What they have been able to accomplish is nothing short of astounding. I asked him how they began and what they had to do in order to develop these favorites.
“I was one of the 11 founding members of YRPA and within the first four years, we got what is now Norm’s Island, Two Moon Park, the Kiwanis Trail and Dover Park. That’s because in that first four years the timing was perfect. Billings needed some good news. And we had found a real talent. We had $7,000 and we were right behind the Billings Heights Kiwanis in getting the trail built.
First was the trail that now goes from Mary Street and behind MetraPark. They were six weeks away from building the railroad bridge with 18 inches of clearance: not enough to walk or ride a bike under! So we started agitating right away. We talked with everyone: City Council, JGA consulting and the Rail Link right-of-way guy. I went to COP Construction with our $7,000 and talked to them about the project. And we got it done. And now we have a trail that goes all the way from Mary Street to the water treatment plant.”
How did you acquire Norm’s Island, I asked.
“We didn’t ask. The area was full of trashed cars and old refrigerators, and the county wanted to build a barbed wire fence around it. But the next weekend, all these people showed up with equipment and ideas and willingness. We built trails there and it became a highly used and appreciated park.
When people said the trail doesn’t go anywhere I said, ‘that’s the purpose of the trail is to not go anywhere, because eventually you’ll push out a little more and the trail will still go nowhere, but farther.’
YRPA started with the Chamber of Commerce’s leadership school. We had a consortium of young professionals and we’d meet every Wednesday for eight Wednesdays and share our original ideas to talk about how wonderful Billings was. We had ideas for how it could be better, and those of us who attended the leadership school started YRPA with the $7,000 of our own money to start getting projects accomplished. Everybody in the group had a creative vision and we worked together to make it a reality.”
I asked him if I could ask him for some advice. “How can I be more effective,” I asked.
“Well,” he said, “see more people.” “Get out there and talk, talk, talk. Get out there; get anywhere; drink coffee; have mysterious meetings in the open,” he advised. “Start paying rent at a coffee shop.
Stay in front of the City Council. Let them know the important trails,” he continued. “Show them how good they are for business,” he said.
Earl was getting tired and had more friends waiting to talk with him, so I told him I’d be back tomorrow to keep getting his advice and more about YRPA. He held my hand tight, and said again, “see more people.”
I did return the next day, but Earl had taken a turn and it seemed pretty clear that he needed his mental energy to go through what he was going through at the present, so I squeezed his hand again and said goodbye for the last time.
When I got back to my office, I remembered that he had written about YRPA on Facebook, so I scrolled through his posts until I landed on the one he wrote June 20, 2022 which shows his pride in YRPA and his sense of humor:
“Dear ‘Greater Billings,’
At this moment ‘Greater Billings’ has a fascinating opportunity on our doorstep. John H. Dover Memorial Park is now ~600 acres, with generous frontage on the Yellowstone River.
From 2020, the Sindelar Family has made it possible for Yellowstone River Parks Association to acquire the Homestead and the Gravel Pit.
The Family is adding intrinsic and extrinsic values and possibilities to the ~120 acres at Mary Street and Five Mile Road that Jim and Ginny gifted YRPA in 10-12 parcels, over 12-15 years beginning in 1992.
The Sindelar Family has made YRPA ownership of ‘The Ranch’ possible with a shared vision, concessions, considerations, reduced prices, and long discussions.
YRPA also had Gifts and Grants.
Do a Google Search using some of the following ‘Clicks,’ ~600 acres, ~single owner 501(c)3 public benefit corporation, ~!00,000 people, ~airport, ~Interstate, ~rail, ~medical, ag, banking and government center ~live creek, river frontage. The Google Search will yield few or none, across this country. In any event, the pickins’ will be slim. This is a one-of-a-kind.
About 5 years ago, YRPA began the public opening of the ~120 acres.
The Public has a park entrance and parking lot, trails, bridges, biffies, benches, etc.
The new Highway Bridge connecting Lockwood and Billings Heights ‘lands’ at Lois’ Point, then goes across the ~120 acres to Mary and Five Mile Streets and Highway 3.
MDOT, engineers and local input have worked closely with YRPA to build an improved walk/bike trail on the bridge, and trail-tunnels under the highway, keeping the ~120 acres in-one-piece between the bridge landing and the Mary Street/Five Mile Road traffic circle.
YRPA has a~30 year track record of success and contribution to the fundamental well-being of this community. We own, or manage, or have an interest somehow, in 10-12 thriving local parks. We partner with the City, County and US. We partner with other nonprofits. Our finances increase and increase again. Our volunteer Board and Officers are professionals. We get things done. Our doors are open. Go to YRPA.ORG for a bigger picture.
No one can foresee or foretell what benefits JHDMP will yield in 10-20 generations and its increasing values and benefits. ‘Greater Billings’ will probably grow from Huntley to Laurel, folding them in, in some fashion; perhaps even to Roundup. The ~600 acre John H.Dover Memorial Park will be in the very center of that Dynamo.
And with a larger vision, you can see that this new bridge also connects Mexico and Canada.
Earl Guss, YRPA Founder with 11 others, 1991”
We lost a treasure of a person last Thursday, but he leaves a mighty legacy for all of us in Billings to enjoy.
Here’s to Earl Guss: trail builder, park developer, friend and mentor who was also a loving father and husband. Our condolences go out to his wife, Maggie, his children and many, many friends.
And you can bet I’ll take his advice and hope to see you, dear reader, in my travels and stops around Billings for a chat about trails and making Billings even better than it already is.