Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) While Marshall Mountain's days as a ski hill are likely over due to a lack of reliable snow, it could begin a new chapter by year's end if a number of steps fall into place.

Missoula County on Monday joined city officials and private partners in announcing that it would take the lead in securing public ownership of 480 acres on and around Marshall Mountain.

That includes 160 acres currently owned by a philanthropy group, 160 acres owned by Five Valleys Land Trust and an additional 160 acres currently owned by The Conservation Fund.

“We at the county have been partnering with the city working on this project,” said commissioner Josh Slotnick. “The county is going to take a lead role in securing acquisition of this site. We can look for this to occur in the near term because this is time sensitive. We have to get this done by the end of the calendar year.”

A group of philanthropists known as Izzy Dog LLC purchased 160 acres on the lower mountain in 2021 to keep it from falling into private ownership. The group allowed the city to lease the lower mountain and retain public access while giving the public time to determine if it wanted to purchase the property for public use.

Two years ago, the value of the lower 160 acres was set at roughly $1.9 million but on Monday, the price for all three parcels together was set at $2.4 million. As proposed, the city and county will contribute funding from the 2018 Open Space bond to cover the lion's share of the cost.

The old clock tower still stands at the base of Marshall Mountain. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)
The old clock tower still stands at the base of Marshall Mountain. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

The city and county will also pursue state and federal grants while Friends of Marshall Mountain, which enjoys a broad and robust membership, looks to raise around $800,000 in private funding, if not more.

“In the coming months, our group is going to be engaging in a multi-million dollar effort to help with not only acquisition but improvements to the park to make this an incredible place to be,” said Jeff Crouch, a representative of Friends of Marshall Mountain. “It's going to take a lot of effort from a lot of people.”

Old Days and New

Nostalgia for the 1980s and 90s when Marshall Mountain served as a local ski hill remain strong, but the snow that once made the mountain a sketchy but enjoyable place to ski is gone. In recent years, Marshall has emerged as a top-notch mountain bike park and has taught countless children how to ski, ride and enjoy the outdoors.

The mountain also offers a quiet, forested getaway just minutes from downtown Missoula. In 2022, according to city data, more than 3,500 permitted attendees used the mountain's base for one event or another.

The possibilities have backers eager to secure the site for public use, though doing so must follow protocol and that will take time to accomplish. But as it stands, Marshall as an open-space acquisition checks all the boxes for its potential, including front-country access to backcountry recreation, conservation and education.

“This fall, we'll be going to the Missoula County commissioners and City Council for their consideration for use of (Open Space) funds that are already set aside for projects like this,” said Donna Gaukler, director of Parks and Recreation for the city.

She added that the final draft a master plan for the site will be out in early May.

“It doesn't necessarily say what will happen and when. But it helps our friends with fundraising and it helps us acquire grants,” Gaukler said. “This park is almost ready to go as it is, we just have to acquire it.”

Supports of Marshall Mountain stand out of the rain during Monday's announcement.
Supporters of Marshall Mountain stand out of the rain during Monday's announcement.

The 160 acres that comprise the mountain's lower flank represents the most visible portion of the project, and it's the easiest to access. But the Five Valleys Land Trust and The Conservation Fund each hold an additional 160 acres above and beyond the base.

On Monday amid a steady rain, the mountain's upper reaches were cloaked in low-hanging clouds. If all three parcels are secured by the city and county as proposed, the open space acquisition would cover 480 acres and make Missoula one of only a handful of cities in the country to own a mountain park.

“The Nature Conservancy donated 160 acres to Five Valleys to hold in 2015, and we've held our parcel since then hoping to allow the use of it with the city and its programs,” said Five Valleys Executive Director Whitney Schwab. “We're excited to be at this point. It's a turning point for the community. The opportunity for this to serve generations of future Missoulians is significant.”

Recent surveys and public feedback collected by the city suggests public ownership of Marshall Mountain has broad appeal. That grew when a private owner nearly secured the base of the mountain – a move that some feared would sever public access to the mountain's recreational charms.

While a master plan for the site is being finalized, the city and county are planning a joint public hearing this September when they'll vote on using funding from the Open Space bond to acquire the mountain park.

“This has been a goal of the city and county quite literally for decades,” said Missoula Mayor Jordan Hess. “This is something where the public time and time again has stepped up and said it was a project of interest. We're excited to move forward with this.”