By Martin Kidston
For most of the last two decades, residents living on the south side of Missoula have been forced to travel north to partake in the city’s growing network of open-space land, never mind there were perfectly good hills worth exploring just beyond their doorstep.
But until recently, most of the hills ringing the valley’s southern rim were privately owned, and most were destined to become another subdivision. In simple terms, the south side had been overlooked when it came to the city’s focus on preserving open space for future generations.
At least until now.
“I’ve always lived on the north side of town and have appreciated all the trail heads and open space over there,” said Pelah Hoyt, the lands director with Five Valleys Land Trust. “The south side of town is really undeserved by the trails and conservation system. It’s been a goal of the city to have those benefits throughout Missoula.”
In a soft drizzle with the clouds sweeping low over Pattee Canyon and the South Hills, Hoyt and Elizabeth Erickson, manager of the city’s open space program, stepped to the edge of a ridge looking over the Missoula Valley.
For lack of a proper name, the ridge has been dubbed the South Hills Spur, and it could become the next piece in a larger effort to conserve the South Hills and a portion of the landscape beyond.
In the coming weeks, the City Council and Missoula County commissioners will decide whether this 83-acre parcel – a blend of native grassland and forest – is worthy of expending $575,000 in open-space funding to acquire.
Doing so would achieve one of the goals written into the city’s 2006 Open Space Plan. Passing on the acquisition would likely usher in more high-end housing perched within the valley’s viewshed, as this and several surrounding parcels have long been eyed as a subdivision.
“We have an option in place with the buyer to acquire that property,” Hoyt said, pointing to a low ridgeline just above the South Hills Spur, where 12 lots are primed for development. “If the city decides it would like to acquire this, at that point, it would make sense for us to acquire that subdivision.”
Even in the rain, the views of the valley below stretch unfettered to the distant North Hills. To the east, Pattee Canyon climbs its way into the deeper landscape. As a whole, this scenic region south of the valley serves as an important wildlife corridor, and the South Hills Spur, at just 83 acres, is an integral part of keeping it that way.
Hoyt admits that when Five Valleys first started looking at the parcel as possible open space, the goal was simply to preserve the prominent ridge for its scenic values while providing additional trail connectivity.
Its role as habitat has more recently entered the discussion.
“As we’ve been up here, we’ve realized it has some really healthy grassland habitat,” Hoyt said. “Some of the cushion-plant community is still doing pretty well. There’s lots of bitterroot you see here in late spring. Audubon was impressed with the diversity of birds they saw.”
Elk scat is abundant at certain times of the year, further acknowledging the value this parcel plays in the collective picture. Views on both conservation and development have shifted since this and other nearby parcels were approved for homes in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
It’s by a stroke of luck that the tractors and hammers have been delayed, even though the infrastructure is in place to begin the work.
“When that subdivision was approved, it was a really different time,” said Hoyt. “I talk to the people who still have ranches up here, and when they were a kid, Missoula was a long ways away. Now, Missoula is right up to the edge of their ranch.”
Across the valley, the North Hills lie low and squat just beyond the glimmer of downtown Missoula. Outside the vast wilderness landscape further north, the city’s open space discussions have been synonymous with Waterworks Hills, Mount Jumbo and Mount Sentinel.
All three landmarks have become a staple of Missoula, appearing on postcards and city fliers promoting the things that make Missoula special. Rarely have the South Hills been part of the discussion, though that has recently changed.
“As Missoula has grown over the past decades and residential growth has expanded, that focus on the wider range of open space and conservation has expanded,” said Erickson. “The projects that happened in the early days, there aren’t parcels that are quite that size anymore. A lot of work in the city’s open-space efforts has been connecting those larger, early acquisitions through smaller parcels and trails, really trying to fill out some of the gaps in the system.”
Hoyt and Erickson look off the ridge to the east where a low, lightly timbered plain dubbed the Barmeyer family property lifts to the base of a nearby mountain. The city purchased the 133-acre parcel earlier this year for $270,000. It adjoins the South Hills Spur and together, the two parcels represent more than 200 acres.
But even at 200 acres, they remain just a small piece of a larger effort to preserve what remains undeveloped in the South Hills. Dean Stone Mountain rises above both parcels, marking the southeastern terminus of the Missoula Valley. At 2,500 acres, acquiring the mountain would add to the legacy-scale effort to conserve 4,000 acres in all.
Earlier this year, Five Valleys received a three-year option from The Nature Conservancy to purchase Dean Stone for $1 million. It came as exciting news in the conservation community, with many hoping to see action sooner rather than later.
But while Hoyt and Erickson understand the broader picture of what the conservation community would like to accomplish – as with its sense of urgency – they also know that realizing the goal takes time and support from the broader community.
“This whole area is an open space cornerstone, meaning it has been prioritized by the city since 2006,” said Hoyt. “That plan guides how we prioritize our time, but some of it depends on when things make sense for the landowners. All this work is voluntary and incentive based.”
Five Valleys first started working with the Barmeyer family a decade ago. It wasn’t until last year the family agreed to consider the acquisition. When it did, it helped move the owner of the adjacent South Hills Spur to action as well.
“It was by their time, and when they wanted to start working with us, we were ready for the call,” said Hoyt. “The South Hills Spur and the Barmeyer property coincidentally happened at the same time. We’ve reached out to two other landowners because this was happening.”
With the pieces coming in place, it’s now up to elected officials to decide whether the city acquires the South Hills Spur. The City Council’s Parks and Conservation Committee will discuss the issue on September 14th.
If it approves the purchase, the South Hills Spur will then advance to a full hearing before the City Council and the Board of County Commissioners. The issue will be decided on Oct. 3.
Contact reporter Martin Kidston at firstname.lastname@example.org