Morgan Valiant, Missoula's conservation lands manager, is waiting for the mini excavator that the city recently purchased to arrive. When it does, he'll be able to put the finishing touches on a reroute of the first section of the popular Cherry Gulch trail in the North Hills and open it to the public. While the reroute will be somewhat more strenuous—adding a climb and a descent to what now is just a straight hike in—Valiant says it's a necessary change.
As it stands now, the first quarter mile or so of the Cherry Gulch trail crosses private land owned by the family of Walt Peschel, a retired doctor and the proprietor of the nearby Mountainwood Estates development. In fact, until November of last year, everyone who hiked from the Waterworks Hill trailhead had to cross the Peschels' unencumbered property. But on Nov. 5, the Peschels and the city formalized a legally binding agreement that allows the public to cross the first few hundred yards of that property, in perpetuity, along the main Waterworks trail. At that point, users are still on Peschel land, but it's land the family placed under a conservation easement long ago.
Hence the new Cherry Gulch trail, which splits off from the main Waterworks trail and climbs farther up the side of the hill before dropping back down into Cherry Gulch and continuing along the existing path.
"The reason that reroute goes up the hill is then it's all on conservation easement property and not unencumbered private property," explains Ryan Chapin, stewardship director for the Five Valleys Land Trust.
While there are no definitive plans for developing the land where the first section of the Cherry Gulch trail currently exists, Chapin says it's a possibility. Whatever happens, Chapin thinks it's important to ensure the public reaches Waterworks Hill via conserved land.
"Since conservation easements and public access are forever," Chapin says, "we wanted to make sure that the reroute wasn't ever going to go through the back side of a condominium, for example."
Despite the slight inconvenience of the reroute and the potential for additional development in the area, Chapin and Valiant both emphasize the Peschels' generosity in allowing public access without a formal agreement for more than two decades, as well as for placing easements on so much of their private land and signing the November agreement.
"The Peschel family has really kind of given, for a long time, the citizens of Missoula a great gift by allowing folks just to walk across their private land to access city open space and access the lands that they already had put into a conservation easement," Valiant says.
Valiant expects the mini excavator to arrive any day and for the reroute to open in June.