Recreation groups concerned about Marshall Mountain sale; backup offer in play
Editors note: This story has been updated to include a name change.
Portions of a former ski area and popular activity site near Missoula is set change ownership, raising concerns that access to the mountain's recreational riches may be restricted to public use.
But a second buyer has recently offered to purchase the Marshall Mountain property as well and has pledged to keep it in the public domain. The long term goal of that scenario, if it were to play out, could see the mountain eventually transfer into public ownership.
That's the outcome sought by recreational advocates who are watching the negotiations closely.
“Here we are with an imminent sale and another community member seeing this potential loss and coming forward to make a signed offer, as of last week,” said John Stegmeier, executive director of Mountain Bike Missoula. “He would more or less keep operations status quo with an advancement toward a transition to a public manager.”
A petition launched by MTB this week on Change.org looks to raise awareness over Marshall Mountain's public benefits, and it had garnered 1,950 signatures by noon on Tuesday. Less than 24 hours later, the number of signatures had jumped to 2,817.
While the petition carries little weight, Stegmeier said it's intended to signal support over perpetual public access and retaining the site for its recreational values.
“Our effort with the petition is an attempt to make sure we demonstrated the public backing for a public outcome,” Stegmeier said. “We also want to be real careful that the current buyer and seller are within their right to do this. If it proceeds as it currently stands, we're going to respect that outcome.”
The former ski area began operating in 1941 and grew slowly with the addition of new runs. But climate change and its lack of snow - and financial setbacks - put an end to skiing in 2003.
The property was initially listed for sale around 2016, including 156 acres on the lower mountain and the old ski lodge. The initial listing firm was Windermere Real Estate, and the owners were seeking $2.9 million.
Dawn Maddox, the current listing agent with Engel & Volkers Western Frontier, confirmed that the Marshall Mountain property is under contract. However, she was limited by state disclosure laws on what she could share, such as the buyer's identity and the property's future.
“It is under contract, and that's about all I should say,” Maddox said. “I've had it for three years, and it was for sale two years before me.”
While the transaction represents a private seller, private buyer and private land, it has raised concerns over future access among recreational groups, including MTB and the Montana Backcountry Alliance.
Along with mountain biking and other events, winter skiing is still popular at Marshal Mountain. On most winter days, the parking lot remains full with dozens of cars.
“Since the commercial area closed, the area has really become something of a backcountry ski resort,” the Montana Backcountry Alliance said. “Skiers see it as an easy place, close to town, where they can go before or after work, and many families bring their kids up there as a close, safe place to introduce them to backcountry skiing.”
The trails on the upper half of the mountain are built on a separate parcel owned by Five Valleys Land Trust, and that property isn't part of the pending sale to the private buyer. It's the lower half of the mountain that's under contract and raising concerns.
The property includes the ski lodge and access to the upper mountain, making it key to maintaining a contiguous recreation site. That goal is uncertain if the initial contract on the lower mountain closes.
“We're not real sure what access the person under contract now will allow. They've given some indications that they'd give some degree of access, but that's not been fully articulated and is a big unknown,” Stegmeier said.
“Given the popularity of that site for skiing, biking and events, it's going to be challenging for someone to enjoy any degree of privacy if a house was built without restricting access to the site.”
While advocates of public access and maintaining Marshall Mountain's recreation offerings respect the private transaction with the current buyer and seller, they're holding out hope that the back-up offer will prevail.
The name of the second buyer hasn't been disclosed, though Stegmeier said its a local resident.
“It's a local Missoulian who has an interest in seeing the site preserved,” Stegmeier said. “There's this beacon of hope that this could work out, but only if the parties under this current agreement let go of it.”
Efforts to transfer the lower half of the mountain into public ownership have been tried and failed in the past. In 2019, efforts to use funding from the open space bond to secure the property in the public domain didn't net any results.
The asking price for the property and the appraised value of the property didn't align, making it impossible to direct open space funding toward the purchase.
“The deal never got close because the seller's asking price was beyond the appraised value,” Stegmeier said. “Because those bond funds are taxpayer dollars, the legal requirement is that it could only pay the appraised value.”