Martin Kidston 

(Missoula Current) Over the 53 years Jerry Marks has led the Missoula County Extension and Weed District, he's made a good number of friends while spearheading good stewardship of the region's agricultural lands.

In return, a long line of advocates on Thursday stepped up in his honor to ask Missoula County to dedicate the new Rocky Mountain Gardens and Exploration Center in Marks' name.

Commissioners agreed by adopting a resolution dubbing the facility the Gerald W Marks Exploration Center and Rocky Mountain Gardens.

“This is an honor,” Marks said in response, adding that he didn't know such an effort was afoot.

Marks grew up on a Townsend farm and earned a bachelor's degree in agricultural science from Montana State University before studying public administration at the University of Montana.

He soon began his career as the agriculture extension agent serving Missoula County in 1969, and he never looked back. Over the following half-century, he gained a reputation for building programs, finding solutions and bringing people together.

“Over the years, I have interacted with many managers of different agencies and organizations, and Jerry stands out as being one the best I've had the pleasure to work with,” said Pat Sweeney, a Ninemile resident and weed district board member. “He's passionate about his work and he leads by example. He's approachable to everyone and treats people well.”

Marks found a niche helping others “turn ideas into action,” several people said, and that began early in his career. Within the first five years on the job, Marks helped broaden the impacts of the county's 4-H, forestry and horticultural programs. Through promotion and outreach, the 4-H program quickly saw a 30% increase in enrollment.

By 1983, his forestry program took root and would eventually inspire the Missoula City Council to create an urban forestry program of its own. Other tasks included Montana's first master gardener program in 1984, followed by several decades working to establish community gardens – a concept that has taken off in Missoula.

“He's a great role model of what public servants and extension agents should be,” said UM Professor Sean Clouse. “It's been an honor to work with him.”

In 1985, due to widespread weed infestation, the county asked Marks to develop an effective weed management program. He did so and went beyond to create a biological weed-control program for land managers across the state, along with grazing and revegetation methods.

Jerry Marks and Montana State University President Waded Cruzado.
Jerry Marks and Montana State University President Waded Cruzado.

But over the years, the extension and weed office moved from location to location, and Marks had a vision of creating a permanent home. On a trip to Wyoming in the 1990s, he came across a concept complete with classrooms, and he set out to bring that vision to Missoula.

More than two decades later, the Rocky Mountain Gardens and Exploration Center is under construction. It will serve as a model for similar districts across the country.

“Dedicating this facility in Jerry's name is the least we can do to honor the positive impact he has had on people's life, the community as a whole and generations to come,” said Bryce Christiaens, the district's new manager. “It's the latest example of his outstanding legacy.”

The new facility on the Missoula County Fairgrounds will include dedicated office space for the extension and weed district. But it also will include 2.5 acres of garden space for education, a master gardening lab, a demonstration kitchen and a conference room.

The project also includes a butterfly house and insectarium – an education component to demonstrate pollinators and their vital role in the world. It's set to open next year.

“He worked tirelessly for decades to make this thing happen, to really move this vision forward and to make the Rocky Mountain Gardens a reality,” said Clouse. “It's fitting to name this building in his honor.”