Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) In the coming weeks, the city and county of Missoula will take a detailed look at their option to purchase 480 acres on Marshall Mountain, possibly converting the one-time ski hill into a hub of outdoor recreation.

Members of the Missoula City Council this week voted unanimously to set a joint hearing with the county in October, when the two governments will decide whether to allocate $2 million in Open Space Bond funding to purchase three blocks of land representing the bulk of the former ski hill.

While skiing won't likely be offered on the mountain in the years ahead, under public ownership, the property could provide other opportunities, many of which have yet to be publicly detailed.

Still, some city officials have expressed enthusiasm for the pending purchase.

“It's a gift to the community. Parks are the great equalizer for socio-economics,” council member Kristen Jordan said this week, adding, “I love mountain biking up there.”

But City Council members and county commissioners have been largely quiet regarding their position on public acquisition of the mountain. Commissioners did appear on community radio recently, where they shared their memories of the mountain back in the 1990s when it was still open for skiing.

This week, council members were urged to hold their opinions close until a later date.

“We'll have lots of opportunities to ask questions and have full public engagement on this,” said council member Amber Sherrill. “We'll be answering more questions.”

While the joint hearing is rapidly approaching, the city and county have not detailed the long-term costs of managing and maintaining the property, and where that funding would come from.

Over the past decade, the city's parks department during budget hearings has at times expressed a shortage of funding and capacity to manager its current open space holdings, including trails and forests.

It was one of the reasons the city sought a maintenance levy in 2018 alongside the most recent Open Space Bond. Leading up to that vote, a city official said of one popular trail, “It's falling apart.”

Potential benefits of public ownership

Zack Covington, the open space program manager for the city, said Marshall Mountain complies with the area's open-space plans and language within the bond itself.

That includes conservation, public access, scenic landscapes, corridors, habitat and waterways, and recreation, among others.

“In the open space plans, there are areas designated as open space cornerstones,” Covington said. “Those are land and resources with high open space value. Those are based on public input, development patterns, natural resources and spacial data sets.”

The three blocks of land that comprise the 480 acres eyed for public ownership on Marshall Mountain.
The three blocks of land that comprise the 480 acres eyed for public ownership on Marshall Mountain.

Kali Becker, the open space manager for the county, added that Marshall Mountain and the surrounding landscape provide valuable habitat for both aquatic and terrestrial species.

She said at least 13 species that call the mountain home have been listed as threatened, endangered, or are species of concern. That includes the flammulated owl, the Northern alligator lizard, Canada lynx, grizzly bears, the Clark's nutcracker and Western cutthroat trout, among others.

“It's also an important connection,” Becher said. “It provides that connectivity to adjacent lands that are very intact blocks of land.”

Becker added that Marshall Mountain has been identified as a landmark with cultural significance dating back to early Native Americans.

“It's an important community place with a long history of use,” Becker said. “We have been talking with the Tribal Council of the Salish and Kootenai Tribes about opportunities to partner on this project.”

Some costs remain unknown

Several weeks ago, Becker hinted during a county administrative meeting that a U.S. Forest Service grant valued at $600,000 could be forthcoming. If received, it would aid in public acquisition of the property.

Those hints came to fruition this week when the county confirmed that it had received the grant. In doing so, the county praised Marshall Mountain for its potential.

“Securing permanent public access to Marshall Mountain would ensure that our communities, both urban and rural, can explore the outdoors,” said Missoula County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier. “The area reflects community values like access to public lands for all users while expanding recreational opportunities, conserving open space and protecting wildlife habitat, and large landscape connectivity.”

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As presented, the full project budget for Marshall Mountain is currently estimated at $3.8 million, which includes the purchase of land and the cost of opening the site to the public.

The county has already signed two option agreements giving it exclusive rights to purchase 160 acres from Five Valleys Land Trust for $73,000, and another 160 acres from Izzy Dog LLC for $1.8 million.

The last block of property also includes 160 acres and is held by The Conservation Fund. It's currently priced at $400,000.

Becker said the full $3.8 million price of buying Marshall Mountain could be reduced through an in-kind donation of the three property owners. The $600,000 grant from the forest service also helps, though long-term maintenance and operational costs haven't been publicly disclosed, and the joint vote on the purchase is now one month away.

The city this August approved a 9.7% tax increase while the county approved its own 5.4% tax increase.

“The Missoula County Parks and Trails Advisory Board is currently discussing operation and management models, should the county acquire Marshall Mountain as a new county park,” the county said this week.