The U.S. Forest Service on Wednesday awarded the Mount Dean Stone Community Forest project a $600,000 grant to retain public access and preserve open space, moving the larger Mount Dean Stone conservation project closer to reality.

The application, submitted by Five Valleys Land Trust, will go toward creating a community forest of more than 1,000 acres on the back side of Mount Dean Stone. The property is currently held by The Nature Conservancy and has been offered for public acquisition.

“This project has been in the works for several years,” said Ben Horan, assistant director of Five Valleys Land Trust. “It is truly a broad community effort.”

The goal of securing a large expanse of open space in the South Hills has moved forward in fits and starts over the last few years. The Mount Dean Stone Committee is comprised of more than 20 local organizations, giving it strong local support to ensure public access is retained.

But doing so has taken time and money, and the local partnership has inched the larger Dean Stone project ever closer to the goal of adding the mountain to the ring of open space surrounding the Missoula Valley.

“This project will provide many benefits for the community of Missoula and we look forward to working together on this partnership,” said regional forester Leanne Marten.

Many at Monday night's City Council meeting mentioned the new Barmeyer Trail as an example of the positive outcomes of open space bond money. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)
The Barmeyer Trail has been a popular addition to Mount Dean Stone and the growing swath of open space in the South Hills. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Since 2016, Five Valleys has worked with more than a dozen Mount Dean Stone landowners to protect and transfer 580 acres on the north face of the mountain into the City of Missoula’s conservation lands inventory.

That effort included the Barmeyer and Sousa trails and, more recently, the House of Sky Trail. Horan said the Mount Dean Stone Community Forest project marks the next phase in achieving a goal launched more than five years ago.

“Community use of Mount Dean Stone for hiking and enjoying nature has been possible for decades through the generous open lands policies of different timber companies,” Horan said. “That access could have been lost, but because of the visionary work of The Nature Conservancy and the support of the Forest Service, Missoulians now have the opportunity to envision a public outcome for the mountain.”

Members of the Five Valleys Land Trust take in the views from the expanding trail system on Mount Dean Stone. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file)
Members of the Five Valleys Land Trust take in the views from the expanding trail system on Mount Dean Stone. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file)

The Mount Dean Stone Community Forest will include the House of Sky Trail, which runs along the mountain's ridgeline and down into the West Fork of Deep Creek.

The 4.6-mile route provides sweeping views of the surrounding valleys. The area also provides vital habitat to a range of species and connectivity between ecosystems.

“This grant award brings Missoulians one step closer to permanent, legal, public access to a special landscape,” said Whitney Schwab, executive director at Five Valleys. “There is still work to be done to fund acquisition of the entire 2,490-acre property, but this grant provides a big step in ensuring that the community will be able to enjoy more than 1,000 acres along the southern horizon in perpetuity.”