Marshall Mountain has long been a Missoula destination for fun and recreation, and many Missoulians want to keep it that way. But can it be all things to all people, and can the city keep it from being loved to death, should it become public property?

Those questions dominated much of the discussion during the City Club Missoula meeting on Monday. The panel trying to answer those questions included Morgan Valiant of Missoula City Parks and Recreation, Chet Crowser of the Missoula County Planning Services Department and Rick Wishcamper, owner of Izzy Dog LLC and the Marshall Mountain property.

Marshall Mountain closed down as a ski area in 2002 because of decreasing lower-elevation snow cover due to climate change. Since then, the owners kept the area open to the public while they tried to sell it. In 2011, the Five Valleys Land Trust acquired the “mid-mountain” parcel, but the lodge and 160 acres at the base were still up for grabs.

People may have started to assume it would remain public, Wishcamper said, until they heard news last year of a pending sale and loss of access. That’s when Wishcamper formed the nonprofit Izzy Dog to buy the base property. He now leases it to the city with an option to buy after 24 months. The asking price for both the base and mid-mountain property – 320 acres - is $1.92 million.

There’s still a related lawsuit, but it involves only the seller and the previous buyers, so “there’s no cloud over the project,” Wishcamper said.

Valiant asked how many once skied at Marshall Mountain and about two-thirds of the 60 or so City Club participants raised their hands.

“Why purchase Marshall? Obviously, there’s a lot of skiing on site and a lot of nostalgia. But also in the last 28 years, it’s really become our community’s unofficial home for outdoor recreation programming and events,” Valiant said. “But we don’t know what we’re going to do with the property should we decide to purchase it.”

After the 2018 County-wide Open Space and Community Trails Survey showed a high amount of support among residents for acquiring the property, the city and county got to work last year developing a community vision with several stakeholders including Izzy Dog, Five Valleys Land Trust and Mountain Bike Missoula, along with public input.

The vision is that Marshall Mountain would be a high-use, all-season, all-access public outdoor recreation education area with programs that would promote responsible stewardship. It should be planned in a manner that honors the character and legacy of Marshall Mountain, including the nostalgic uses of snow-based sports, mountain biking and community events.

The next step is developing the master plan, and the city hired consultant SE Group, which has helped several other communities turn defunct ski hills into regional parks. SE Group has collected information about the property in Phase I and will propose a number of possible park configurations in Phase II. After a plan is finalized, they’ll come up with the design. Valiant said the master plan should be done by the end of the summer.

In the meantime, Friends of Marshall Mountain has started fundraising. That will kick into high gear from the fall until spring 2023 when the 24-month lease is up.

“Knowing what you’re going to build is a key question when you’re going to ask people for money. Everybody wants to know what you’re going to do with it,” Valiant said. “If we’re successful, construction would be phased over time.”

The city will also develop a related business plan that could include ways the site could make its own money, from charging for use of the ski area’s bunny hill to providing access to the easier slopes higher up using the rope-tow lift. However, the SE Group already took one look at the chair lift and shook their heads, saying it would take about $1 million to get it up and running.

Valiant said the need for more parks where the city can host youth summer camps is skyrocketing as more people flood into the valley. Around 15,000 people have moved to Missoula since the ski area closed.

“Our city parks and rec program has grown 10-fold in the last decade. In the last three years, just at Marshall alone, more than 20,000 kids have used the site,” Valiant said. “This year, all of our camps within city parks and rec filled up in 24 hours, and we’ve got over 3,000 kids on the waiting list. There’s no other place to take them.”

Some people asked about transportation possibilities to keep traffic down on the winding two-lane road to reduce congestion. Crowser said the specifics would depend on what kind of facilities end up being developed. The city and county are watching what happens this summer with the university’s U-Dash shuttles for river users to see how much use they get.

Five Valleys Land Trust executive director Whitney Schwab asked whether wildlife values would get some consideration. Fish, Wildlife & Parks Regional Park Manager Loren Flynn said elk use the area as a corridor between Mount Jumbo and other areas but probably wouldn’t be affected by activity on the base property.

However, with Missoula’s bear populations, there would need to be an emphasis on education so people would know how to act, especially mountain bikers who are more likely to surprise a bear.

“As we think more broadly about the landscape, where do we have wildlife crossing either from Marshall or to Marshall from other areas? Not only that but we have traditional uses related to hunting that extend beyond Marshall but use this as a jumping off point,” Crowser said. “While we do this master planning, we’re always having to keep in mind what are those needs that might be just outside the boundary but might be part and parcel of what we’re doing this for.”

Valiant said the Mount Jumbo area adjacent to Marshall Mountain was set aside specifically for wildlife habitat, so no organized recreation is allowed.

“Marshall could serve as a place we can funnel a lot of that higher-use recreation because we know the site can handle it. It was a commercial ski area for 60 years,” Valliant said.

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