Pine needles and leaves crunched under her feet. The sun shone brightly in the September bluebird sky, and the West Fork River hummed along its orange, glowing tree-lined banks in Conner. Marty Stomberg smiled quietly from beneath the large brim of her hat.

She paused her steps, “We’re just here to care for the land, the best way possible.” Her family has been caretakers of this land along the West Fork River for many years. “My son, Ben, grew up here. You know, kids fledge. When he came of age, he came back. It was his playground as a kid, and he came back as an adult, wanting to care for it.”

Marty’s son, Ben, passed away tragically in 2010. This pine covered bank on the West Fork has been the family’s special place to honor Ben’s memory. And to share this peaceful spot with the entire Bitterroot community is meaningful to them. Marty recalls with glossy, blinking blue eyes, “We started thinking, this is a thing to do for Ben. It’s the thing that I’m going to do for him.”

More than just the Stomberg and White families have benefited from forested land and river access. Locals and visitors alike have been coming here to “High Bank” to wade fish, launch boats, and spend time together with family and friends for decades. All because of the generosity of Marty and her family.

It Breaks My Heart

Marty motioned to the nature around her, “It breaks my heart we’ve lost so much river frontage, so many hot springs, and places to go. But this will be public access. Open land makes recreation available to the people of Darby, to the people of Conner. They can have a place to go to the river.”

The family knew permanently protecting the community’s access to the river was the right thing to do.

“We’ve had offers, and we turned them down because it just didn’t feel right. We started asking the Bitter Root Land Trust, ‘what if?’ What if it was a better fishing
access, a small campground? The next access is about 20 miles up the road”, said Marty.

For many years, Marty and her family, sister Barb and her husband Robert Dickman, and brother, Don White, worked with the land trust to see what is possible for this special piece of ground, and how it could benefit the people of Conner and Darby.

The road was long and difficult.

Marty and her son Ben, sister Barb, and husband Bob Dickman, and later, Ben’s father, Don White, worked diligently to keep the land intact. They cashed out retirement funds and sold other assets to put themselves in a position to make decisions for the future of their land. It was a balancing act navigating tenuous family dynamics and finances. But it was their graceful determination that made this vision come true.

Access to the River for All

And now, thanks to you, and many more caring supporters, access to the river was not lost. It was protected. Organizations and stakeholders from across the valley came together around conservation: The Open Lands Program, FWP, Connell Foundation, Ravalli County Fish & Wildlife Association, Montana Fish and Wildlife Conservation Trust, Five Valleys Audubon, and Bitterroot Audubon.

The partnership with the Stomberg and White families, the Bitter Root Land Trust, and Montana Fish,Wildlife, and Parks, ensures forest and river access for camping, fishing, horseback riding, hunting, and hiking are here to stay.

Marty says it best,

“It doesn’t feel like a compromise, really. It just feels like a good solution.”

When family and community find a way to make great conservation happen, the people of this valley benefit.