Real estate junkies, government critics, and avid hikers alike might be baffled at the rock-bottom price paid Tuesday for the 475 acres on the west slope of Mt. Sentinel by Missoula’s Open Space program. The Cox family parted with a piece of their ranch for a paltry $175,000, or about $370 dollars an acre. By comparison, the 467 acres of land that comprise the North Hills cost $580,000, about $1,260 dollars an acre.
An easement purchased by the city in 1980 to discourage development and encourage public access may have devalued the land slightly, but according to Wendy Ninteman of Five Valleys Land Trust, the bucolic bargain was mainly the result of the former owners’ generosity. “They have given what amounts to a conservation gift to the city,” lauded Ninteman. “None of this would have happened without the cooperation of the Cox family.”
Still, new land ownership is not without its perils. Most of the land on Mt. Jumbo and Mt. Sentinel acquired by the city under voter-approved bonds in 1980 and 1995 heavily favors one of Montana’s most prevalent invasive plant species, the noxious knapweed. In addition to out-competing the native bunchgrasses for space, the coarse brown plant scratches the legs and irritates the skin; in spring the pollen from the flowering weed stuffs the nasal passages of allergy prone-hikers.
Noting the problem is nothing to sneeze at, the Five Valleys Land Trust gave the open space program $5,000 dollars to continue the weed control program used by the Cox family on the Sentinel hillside. “Our only stipulation is that this money go to an active management plan,” said Ninteman. “No studies. We would like to see something in place as soon as possible.”
Open Space Program Manager Kate Supplee cautioned that while the city has every intention of getting to work soon to arrest the invader, democracy may provide a delay. Though Missoula’s citizens have overwhelmingly approved of the city’s land purchases, much debate has arisen over how to manage the weeds. “This inevitably leads to a polarization over herbicides,” Suplee observed. Some advocates in particular might protest the highly effective but environmentally dubious tool employed by the Cox family: herbicides sprayed from a plane.
To mediate this debate, last week the city hired Marilyn Marler, whose half-time position as Noxious Weed Coordinator at the University of Montana will become full time as she begins doing the same work for the Open Spaces Program. “To tell the truth, I’m not sure what the plan for the Cox land will entail,” said Marler, “although I would like to see the same type of thing the university has been doing, a combination of grazing, pulling by volunteers, and herbicides, decreasing the herbicide use slowly. I think can safely say we won’t be spraying from planes.”