Missoula’s fastest-growing neighborhoods received a priceless gift Monday night, when the Missoula City Council and Board of County Commissioners approved the use of $450,000 in open space bond funds for a slice of North Hills land known as the Bluebird.

The 124 acres just above the Grant Creek exit on Interstate 90 could have been lost to development, had it not been for quick action by Five Valleys Land Trust to purchase and protect the property, giving the city and county time to act.

Now, the city will buy the land from Five Valleys and develop a management plan that emphasizes public access and recreation, protection of native plants and wildlife, and preservation of Missoula’s scenic backdrop.

The purchase, said Pelah Hoyt, lands director for Five Valleys, “is consistent with our values in Missoula – to have a vibrant economy, but also take care of the natural world.”

The most direct benefit to Missoula citizens, she said, will be the public access – not only to the 124 acres just above the Snowbowl parking lot at the base of Grant Creek, but to 220 acres of adjoining land owned by Allied Waste, which placed a conservation easement on the ground (allowing public access) in 2009.

Until now, though, there was no way for the public to access the Allied Waste (now Republic Services) land.

The result of Monday night’s action following a joint session of the City Council and county commissioners: more than 400 acres of newly accessible open space within easy reach of the crowded Scott Street/North Reserve area and densely packed neighborhoods west of Reserve.

“This is an area that has seen a lot of growth in recent years and is expected to see more in the future,” Hoyt said. “This property will serve all those residential areas and the workforce along Reserve Street.”

The Bluebird-North Hills open space will give all of Missoula "a place to get outside, to get exercise, to tend to their mental and physical health,” she said.

Bert Lindler of the Grant Creek Neighborhood Council said his group gave the purchase its unanimous endorsement.

“I cannot think of a more worthwhile acquisition,” he said. “I’m a happy open space advocate, seeing this new piece added to Missoula’s incredible system of open space lands.”

The Bluebird-North Hills provide a wide swath of Missoula's scenic backdrop. (Brian Christianson photo/via Five Valleys Land Trust)
The Bluebird-North Hills provide a wide swath of Missoula's scenic backdrop. (Brian Christianson photo/via Five Valleys Land Trust)

Had Five Valleys not purchased the property, the entire 124 acres would have gone to a private buyer who intended to build one house on the hillside and close the land to public access, said Ward 3 Councilwoman Gwen Jones.

Now, the Bluebird-North Hills will be open to all of Missoula.

Jones also emphasized the geographic diversity provided by the purchase, which drew no detractors at Monday night’s hearing and was unanimously approved by both city and county leaders.

“This is in an area that is geographically on the other side of Missoula from our other acquisition – the Barmeyer property, which is very heavily used,” Jones said. “I like that we can spread around the access and open space opportunities. I’m really pleased about that.”

Councilman Jordan Hess hailed the acquisition “a real gem,” and said it sets up the very real possibility of a future trail providing continuous access from Grant Creek, along the North Hills, to Mount Jumbo.

“Open space acquisitions,” he said, “are some of the most meaningful work we do on City Council."

The purchase also will have a direct impact on future decisions about recently acquired county land just to the north of the Bluebird, said Commissioner Dave Strohmaier, who along with Commissioner Juanita Vero approved use of the funds.

The money will come from the city's portion of the 2006 open space bond fund, which now has about $100,000 of city funds remaining.

Hoyt and Councilwoman Heather Harp emphasized the many public and private partners who worked on the project.

The Morris family, owners of Montana Snowbowl ski area, provided access through their parking lot to the new trailhead, just off Grant Creek Road.

Five Valleys Land Trust provided the vision, quick action and interim ownership needed to secure the deal, plus worked with Allied Waste in 2009 to secure the adjoining conservation easement and public access. (Someone had that long-term vision,” said Councilwoman Julie Merritt.)

Letters of support came from WGM, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, the Grant Creek Trail Association, Homeword and the Open Space Advisory Committee.

“To think that this could all have been untouchable,” said Harp. “The amount of effort this took by all these folks. We are indebted to you for years to come.”