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Room to roam

Five local landscapes where Missoula’s open space bond hits the ground

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If someone slapped a price tag on the wide, open faces of Mount Jumbo and Mount Sentinel, what would it read?

The elk wintering there would surely offer up figures different from those suggested by hikers, or developers, or summer tourists, all of whom value Missoula’s signature mounds in different ways, for different reasons.

Ten years ago, Missoula city voters collectively agreed that open space in one form or another was worth at least $10 a year per average homeowner over a 20-year span, and since its passage the city’s $5 million open space bond has been used to purchase more than 3,300 acres, including the bulk of Jumbo and Sentinel, part of the North Hills, and additional land for parks and a bicycle trail network.

Now, with the materializing promise of expanding development and the original bond nearly spent, voters will head back to the polls in November to authorize, or not, an open space bond twice the size of the one approved in 1995. This time, homeowners throughout the county would foot the $10 million bond—at a cost of $19.81 a year over 20 years for residences assessed at $200,000—and half the money would go toward preserving open space within the Missoula urban area while the other half would be dedicated to the outlying county.

At public hearings leading up to the Missoula County Commissioners’ June 28 approval of the bond’s placement on the ballot, most people spoke in support of more open space, citing its tangible worth in the form of recreation, wildlife habitat or water quality as well as more elusive but equally important aesthetic values—like scenic views and the quiet of undeveloped acres—that contribute to our collective sense of this place. Some have floated concerns about expanding public open space, like the increased tax burden for homeowners and the long-term costs and obligations of maintaining open space once it’s acquired.

City Council’s Jerry Ballas, for one, worries that city residents in particular are already stretched too thin by ongoing bond obligations like the new aquatics facilities and fire stations, not to mention the lingering open space bond of 1995. And with another bond in the works for a new public safety building, Ballas thinks the proposed bond is just too much to ask of citizens who already stepped up to the plate to support open space the first time around.

“To me it comes down to priorities,” Ballas says. “And I think the city has done enough at this point in time.”

The complexity of the issue is fed by the fact that now—not another decade down the road—is when preserving open space will be easiest, due to rapid countywide development and its attendant implications: From 1970 to 2004 the number of people in Missoula County grew by 70 percent, but the amount of developed land swelled by 228 percent, according to the Missoula open space plan; in the 15 years from 1990 to 2004, more than 15,000 acres in Missoula County were subdivided, more than 90 percent of which were outside city limits. And Missoula isn’t the only place in Montana trying to take advantage of the diminishing window in which it’s most feasible and cost-effective to preserve open space. Ravalli County and the city of Helena are still deciding whether to place open space bonds on November’s ballot. In 2004, Gallatin County approved a $10 million bond, just four years after approving its first $10 million open space bond.

Both the city and the county of Missoula are crafting strategies for prioritizing open space projects should the bond prove successful. The greater Missoula urban area has a holdover plan from the 1995 bond, and Open Space Program Manager Jackie Corday and the citizen-run Open Space Advisory Committee are now completing an update to that plan that expands the “cornerstone” open space priorities. On July 10, the Missoula County Open Lands Working Group, facilitated by Five Valleys Land Trust, presented the County Commissioners with its recommendations in a report that covers nine county planning regions (Lolo, Evaro, Swan, Clinton/Turah, Seeley, Frenchtown/Huson, Ninemile, Missoula and Potomac/Greenough) and presents what residents see as the critical values in need of protection. City and county plans both view open space as one tool to help preserve water quality, wildlife and plant habitat, agriculture and timber lands and public recreation access, as well as the cultural, historical and aesthetic resources associated with undeveloped land. And both plans stress the importance of partnerships, recognizing the number of successful private groups—including Five Valleys Land Trust, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Montana Land Reliance, Trust for Public Land, Bitterroot Land Trust, Nature Conservancy and Vital Ground—and federal and state agencies working on land preservation.

While the city’s plan doesn’t shy away from prioritizing specific geographical areas for open space acquisition, in part because remaining undeveloped urban lands are so apparent, the county has intentionally identified values—not geographical areas—informing open space purchases. At this point, then, it’s premature to pin down specific areas where tax dollars would likely be spent on open space throughout the rural parts of the county. However, a look at the five major open space priorities identified within the Missoula urban core can lend understanding of the sorts of places Missoulians could vote to protect and why.

When it comes down to it, the spaces the city and county will look to keep open, should voters’ blessings be secured, are much the same. It’s land that, for a number of reasons, most people can agree better serves the public and the natural world in its undeveloped state. It’s the places—like Mount Jumbo and Mount Sentinel—whose sale tags, if they had them, would read “priceless.” The North Hills

Stand just about anywhere in Missoula and you can turn your gaze north to take in the sunny open hillsides of the North Hills. Like mounts Jumbo and Sentinel to the east, the gentle rise and fall of the North Hills—bordered by I-90 to the south, U.S. Highway 93 to the west and the Rattlesnake Valley to the east—adds to Missoula’s visual character and distinctive sense of place.

“The North Hills are one of our highest priorities because everybody sees them,” says Jackie Corday, Open Space Program manager for the City of Missoula.

But it’s not just the view that has open space planners interested in protecting the wide-open vistas north of town. That land is also critical winter-range habitat for hoofed critters—most notably elk—that move out of the Rattlesnake during the harsh winter months.

“There are about 240 [elk] that utilize the North Hills,” Corday says. “That’s why a lot of different land agencies are interested: to make sure that this herd is maintained in the future.”

But unlike the much-steeper Jumbo and Sentinel, the majority of North Hills land is prime buildable real estate. Like their sister slopes across the valley in the South Hills, the North Hills, with their moderate grade, can accommodate large-scale residential development. That makes much of the area land significantly more valuable to potential developers than that of Jumbo and Sentinel. As such, Corday says it will take more than open space bond money to preserve them.

“There’s no way land in the North Hills will be protected by any one agency or land trust,” Corday says. “We’ll have enough money so that if [landowners] want to work with us we’ll be able to pay for easement costs, but we’ll have to work with all of the partners.”

The Grass Valley

The Grass Valley, located about a mile west of Missoula International Airport just north of the old Milwaukee railroad track, is home to some of the most fertile undeveloped farmland in the county. Large-scale commercial and residential development has yet to reach this flat, largely agricultural pocket valley within the Clay Hills along the Clark Fork, thus a farmer working land here can still enjoy a nearly unspoiled 360-degree view of Jumbo and Sentinel, the North and South Hills and the Bitterroot Mountains.

“Much of the Grass Valley looks just like it did 100 years ago,” Corday says.

But as residential and commercial development continues to spread, it threatens to take some of the county’s last prime agriculture soils—soils best suited for the coaxing of high yields of a wide variety of crops—out of production. Because of their close proximity to a city that is rapidly growing in their direction, Grass Valley landowners are under tremendous pressure from developers to sell their land.

Take, for example, Grass Valley landowner Tom Alsaker, who farmed 80 acres for 33 years before dividing his land for the controversial Grizzly Dens subdivision.

“I have always taken care of my property,” he told the Missoulian in February 2005, after neighbors angrily protested his decision. “Fact is, I can’t afford to farm it anymore.”

Corday says the Grass Valley is a prime example of how open space planning for agricultural lands goes far beyond aesthetic or recreational considerations.

“The other reason to preserve our farmlands is to preserve our prime soil,” Corday says.

The Grass Valley’s importance as an open space lies not only in its agricultural heritage and its dirt, but in the fact that it’s also home to five different types of wetlands, which provide habitat for an abundance of wildlife, as well as protect water quality in the Clark Fork River drainage.

The Clark Fork and Bitterroot River Corridors

The Clark Fork and Bitterroot river corridors, which comprise the river bottoms, surrounding riparian areas and adjacent floodplains, are ecological and economic keystones to the Missoula Valley. Not only do these aquatic ecosystems play the important role of improving surface water quality, they also provide crucial wildlife habitat for hundreds of species, including dozens of bird species, amphibians and mammals such as deer, elk, moose, fox and bear. Moreover, these corridors provide exceptional recreational opportunities for boaters, anglers, swimmers and wildlife enthusiasts.

Floodplains also offer invaluable “ecosystem services,” processes by which the natural environment produces resources useful to people, thus akin to economic services.

For example, an undeveloped floodplain stores excess water, which reduces downstream flooding—and the damage associated with it—during high runoff.

Corday says because federal and state regulations already limit development within these areas, thus making them less susceptible to growth pressure, the river corridors offer some of the best opportunities to protect open space.

“Because it’s floodplain, that helps keep our costs down. Then we’re not competing as much with developers,” Corday says.

While the river corridors are poor sites for high-density subdivisions, open space managers still have to compete with trophy-home builders who want a view of the river, and gravel mining operators. With hundreds of private parcels within the corridors, piecing together open space protections will be planners’ primary challenge.

The South Hills

For many locals, there’s no greater monument to unchecked urban sprawl than the South Hills. And while much of the north-facing foothills may be lost to expansive McMansions packed into cookie-cutter subdivisions, the city is not ready to give up on preserving the remaining open spaces.

“It’s definitely the tougher one because so many people think it’s already lost,” Corday says.

From the valley floor, the view of the South Hills is of row upon row of houses punctuated by roads cut deeply into the hillsides. However, much of the upper South Hills remains as open grassy hillsides, winter home to the Miller Creek elk herd. As on the North Hills and Mount Jumbo, elk spend much of the winter grazing on the open sunny hillsides, avoiding the deep snow and harsh conditions of higher country.

Though many locals consider the South Hills a lost cause, planners have actually expanded the South Hills “cornerstone” priorities in the updated Missoula Urban Area Open Space Plan.

“The hope would be that people in the South Hills could have what the people in the Rattlesnake still have, the ability to hike out their backyard,” Corday says.

Corday acknowledges that landowners who own the remaining swaths of open space in the South Hills have difficult decisions to make, especially given the high value of the land.

“We can’t pay them what their land is worth,” she says. “But it’s our hope that we can work with them to preserve some part. If it all looked like Mansion Heights that would be a loss.”

The Bicycle Commuter Network

Then we think of open space, we often think of wide-open hillsides, mountain vistas or sprawling forests. You may not realize that when you’re biking through town along the Clark Fork or walking to the mall on the Bitterroot Spur trail, you’re using some of the most popular open spaces Missoula has to offer.

This network of trails, known as the Bicycle Commuter Network, connects key portions of the city and gives non-motorized Missoulians the ability to move about town in relative safety without fear of speeding traffic or the hassle of congested roadways and busy intersections. The commuter network consists primarily of two trails: the Kim Williams to Russell Street trail, which spans east/west along the Clark Fork River on the old Milwaukee railroad corridor, and the Bitterroot Spur trail, which extends roughly north/south from McCormick Park to South Reserve Street. These trails connect neighborhoods to parks, businesses and the University of Montana campus, making Missoula a more pedestrian- and bike-friendly town.

While these trails offer a convenient commuter route, neither is complete. Neighborhoods west of Russell Street are completely cut off from the trail system, and easements for portions of the Bitterroot Spur between North and Livingston avenues and McDonald Avenue and South Reserve Street have yet to be acquired.

Completing the trails is a priority for the city, but it’s not without challenges. City planners will have to overcome the concerns of dozens of individuals who now own the land the trail would pass through.

“Everybody loves the trail system, but not everybody necessarily wants it coming through their backyard,” Corday says.

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