What happens when Missoula’s open space bond runs out of funding?

Dean Stone2
A proposed open space project southeast of Missoula marks the latest effort to conserve land across the county, but with funding from the 2006 Open Space Bond running low, some are wondering what happens next. (Photo by Martin Kidston)

By Martin Kidston

The Open Lands Advisory Committee last week agreed to recommend the release of funding from Missoula County’s open space bond to place a small parcel of land in the Seeley-Swan Valley into an easement.

The vote wasn’t unanimous and it triggered wider questions on what happens to Missoula’s open-space program when funding from the bond runs out.

“If in a year from now we have no money and we don’t have a bond to pass, are we going to see a decrease in conservation opportunities?” one committee member asked. “How does Five Valleys (Land Trust) see its future if and when that money disappears?”

Missoula County voters approved the current open space bond in 2006, freeing up funding to conserve prized parcels across the county. To date, more than $7 million has been expended from the bond program to conserve 29,621 acres, including several large parcels around the Missoula Valley.

But just $2.8 million remains in Missoula’s open-space coffers. Barring voter-approval of a new open-space bond in the coming years, conservation efforts across the county could slow at a time when the population is expected to grow, bringing new development pressures with it.

“We’ve been very fortunate in Missoula County to have the Open Space Bond Program as a partner in the work that we do,” said Vickie Edwards, the conservation project manager at Five Valley’s Land Trust. “When we lose a really good partner, there would be some repercussions in the number of easements that could be accomplished, so I suspect the trend would decline.”

Five Valley’s has served as a major partner in Missoula’s land conservation efforts since 1972. Through the years, it has worked with land owners who voluntarily seek to place an easement on their property and conserve it for future generations. The nonprofit also had helped raise matching funds to complete several conservation projects while providing valuable in-house services.

The Anderson-Miester Clearwater project marks the latest achievement, alleviating development pressure on a prized parcel set in a coveted location between the Mission Mountains and Bob Marshal Wilderness. But at only 35 acres and with funding from the open space bond running low, some committee members questioned the value of accepting the easement.

“I believe the cost that Five Valleys is asking is too high based on the value and what the county is going to get,” said committee member Ron Schrader. “One of the requirements is that it has to be in the public interest, and I’m not seeing a lot of the public interest in this parcel.”

In the end, the committee agreed to recommend spending $15,600 from the county’s open space money to complete the transaction and place the donated easement into conservation. Five Valleys contributed roughly $5,500 in staff time and legal fees.

Edwards said her organization’s contribution in staff time to other projects has run as high as $18,000. That retains funding in the open-space bond, though the contribution is seldom referenced in committee reports pertaining to transaction costs.

“When I think about our contribution to projects, we really do look at how much we can contribute on top of staff time, dollars, and matches from land owners and contributions from the county,” Edwards said. “There’s also a substantial in-kind contribution coming in from the landowners as part of a match that can’t be identified.”

It’s hard to pinpoint how long, exactly, funding in the open space bond will last, according to Kali Becher, a rural landscape scientist with Missoula County. The projects very year by year, with some years seeing more activity than others.

While not every easement wins a unanimous vote by the committee, the open space bond has played a vital role in conserving lands across the county, Becher said.

“Having a local source of funding for all these projects, whether it’s the acquisition of public lands owned by the city or other entities, they’re great programs that have so much public value,” said Becher. “The Anderson-Miester Clearwater project is a good example of the way the bond funding can be used in situations where land owners want to donate a conservation easement.”

Reporter Martin Kidston can be reached at info@missoulacurrent.com