Missoula’s Dean Stone conservation project fit for the future

The full thrust of the Bitterroot Mountains are seen from the southern flank of Mount Dean Stone, a large conservation and open-space effort that continues to make progress on Missoula’s wildlife-urban fringe. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

DEAN STONE MOUNTAIN – It’s a pleasant surprise when the trees open onto the ridge and the full thrust of the Bitterroot Mountains comes into view, the jagged peaks breaking the distant horizon – pearly white against a deeper blue.

In the ravine far below, Bear Run Creek cuts a narrow channel to the west where it mixes with the cold waters of the Bitterroot River. The woods are wrapped in tranquil silence and the bustle of Missoula may as well sit 100 miles away.

Never mind it’s just around the bend.

Welcome to Mount Dean Stone – Missoula’s new backyard.

“You’ve got the North Hills, Mount Jumbo and Sentinel, and Dean Stone is the next piece, connecting south to the Bitterroot River,” said Whitney Schwab, the philanthropy director for Five Valleys Land Trust. “You’ll be able to connect on land available for public use from the North Hills all the way down to the Bitterroot River.”

On a Monday afternoon, Schwab pulled out her map and named the landmarks while explaining how the largest conservation project ever launched on Missoula’s urban fringe is unfolding.

Five Valleys, in partnership with The Nature Conservancy, raised more than $212,000 at its annual banquet on Saturday night to support the multi-year effort to preserve this landscape as open space. Combined with funding raised last year and donations made by private land holders, the effort is moving closer to reality.

Given the city’s growth, it may be happening in the nick of time.

“Little Park Creek, just over here on the Miller Creek side, that’s got important fish habitat and the wildlife benefits are really critical,” said Schwab. “The south side of Missoula is the fastest developing side of town, and that development pressure will continue to increase.”

Standing under the brilliant spring sun high upon the ridge, it’s easy to see what could be – the views, the silence, the trails and the preservation of precious habitat. But protecting it for the public’s benefit will take time and money.

As many as 14 complicated land dealings will be required to close the larger Dean Stone project, along with $1 million to actually purchase 2,500 acres on the mountain’s southern flank.

Mount Dean Stone rises above the southern rim of the Missoula Valley, seen in the distance beyond the ridge. The Mount Dean Stone project would protect more than 4,000 acres for public use and wildlife habitat. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

But efforts to peck away at the Dean Stone project took several steps forward last year when Five Valleys acquired 83 acres known as the South Hills Spur, a prominent nob marking Dean Stone’s northern slope.

After securing the parcel, the organization gave the city of Missoula the option of buying it for $575,000 – nearly half of it’s $1.2 million value. Using funding from the 2006 Open Space Bond, the city acted and the property has been added to the larger complex, representing Phase 1 of the Dean Stone project.

Trail building has begun and the first phase is expected to open to public use later this year.

“This was transferred into the city’s open space program,” said Schwab, noting the spur on the map. “It went through their public process around trail development and uses, and they’ve already begun trail building in partnership with MTB Missoula and the Montana Conservation Corps.”

Five Valleys has also secured $1.3 million of additional land within the larger Dean Stone complex, thanks in large part to like-minded property owners who donated $600,000 in holdings to the effort.

The acquisitions included property where a 12-lot subdivision had been proposed and approved. Schwab said other negotiations remain in play as part of a larger effort to connect the pieces of the Dean Stone puzzle.

“It all helps us get to where we need to go,” said Schwab. “We’re working on connecting all of it. The goal will be to get us up to the ridge of Dean Stone and to the lands on the south to be able to access all of that.”

Accessing “all of that” was little more than a fanciful vision just two short years ago. But reality set in last year when the the Nature Conservancy granted Five Valleys a three-year option to purchase the 2,500 acres of land on Dean Stone’s southern flank for $1 million – far less than its $1.5 million value.

Five Valleys raised $163,000 toward the effort last year and added another $212,000 to its coffers at Saturday night’s banquette.

“I think about what Missoula would be like without Mount Sentinel, Mount Jumbo and the North Hills,” said Mike Foot, a board member with Five Valleys. “I would love it if in 10 years people wonder what Missoula would have been like without mount Dean Stone. It’s an ambitious project, but it’s worth it.”

While fundraising and land negotiations continue, a collection of Missoula stakeholders have come together with an eye on future uses and management of the Dean Stone complex.

Public access and recreation remains a major part of the plans going into the Dean Stone open-space project, even as fundraising and land negotiations continue. (Photo courtesy of Five Valleys Land Trust)

Comprised of community members and partners, the groups represent everything from state agencies like Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, to local groups like the Hellgate Hunters and Anglers and Run Wild Missoula.

The effort to design the use and management of a major swath of open space from the ground up doesn’t come along very often. Nor does the opportunity to conserve a major piece of what Schwab describes as the “arc of conservation” ringing the Missoula Valley.

The city’s growth is expected to continue its upward climb, with 18,000 new residents needing 9,000 new households by 2035. When that day comes, the chance to secure large tracts of open space may have passed.

That leaves supporters hoping to protect what remains of the unprotected landscape ringing the Missoula Valley, including the last piece in Mount Dean Stone.

“It’s really a significant wildlife corridor and habitat,” said Schwab. “Heading south, it connects into the northern Sapphires. There was a verified wolverine sighting on a motion sensor camera just south of here.

“The feedback we keep hearing is just how much it makes sense to conserve this and how much our quality of life here is so intrinsically tied to the spaces we have around us.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com