Of all the land around Missoula, river corridors should have the highest priority for conservation if local residents want the most bang for their open space bucks.

That was the message that new Missoula County Commissioner Juanita Vero heard from Clark Fork Coalition restoration director Will McDowell and Missoula Parks and Recreation director Donna Gaukler as they flew over the Missoula Valley Tuesday morning.

“The whole concept of riverine conservation for the Missoula area is really strongly supported by Fish, Wildlife & Parks’ analysis for the open space bond,” McDowell said. “Their message is very simple: If you want to conserve wildlife habitat in the Missoula area, conserve the stream and river corridors,” McDowell said. “That’s the most valuable habitat for wildlife. That’s where they find almost all the large mammals moving – through the river corridors.”

With that, McDowell had Ecoflight pilot Bruce Gordon fly the group up the Clark Fork River to look at a 420-acre property for sale along the river near Clinton. Many of the riparian areas upstream of Missoula are privately owned, so the forested property south of the river could provide an opportunity for the county to help preserve an area where the Clark Fork River is still allowed to move within the floodplain.

McDowell cited a 2016 research paper by University of Montana ecologist F. Richard Hauer, which emphasized the need to preserve gravel-bed rivers like the Clark Fork as places for species to interact and as wildlife corridors.

“Gravel-bed rivers are the keystone ecological features of the Northern Rockies. If these features are functioning in a healthy way, we have a good chance of keeping a healthy ecosystem,” Gordon said.

From there, the plane headed west over the mountains toward the Bitterroot River. Along the way, McDowell pointed out how natural the upper stretch of Miller Creek has remained. Its sinuous route still wanders through the green meadows south of Missoula.

Lower Miller Creek is not as untouched as it passes through a subdivision. But McDowell pointed out that the south-facing slopes above the creek are still undeveloped. They provide elk winter range, but they’re threatened by a wave of development coming over the hill from Linda Vista.

Turning north to follow the Bitterroot River from Florence, McDowell pointed out a broad stretch of trees along the river that is one of the largest chunks of undeveloped riparian forest left in western Montana. For now, the corridor is made up of state trust land or private land with conservation easements. But some of the private parcels don’t have conservation easements, something McDowell wants to change.

“Keeping a tract of land like this intact in the river corridor is a very rare opportunity in western Montana now,” McDowell said.

As the plane's route followed Blue Mountain Road, McDowell’s most prized project came into view. He had Gordon circle McCauley Butte near Target Range.

McDowell told Vero that most of the butte is under a conservation easement, but there’s an opportunity to buy 20 acres on the eastern side of the butte that is still developable. If that could happen, the whole corridor on the southwestern edge of Missoula along the Bitterroot River would remain open land because the rest is or will be owned by the city and the University of Montana.

“That’s the No. 1 project that I would be interested in. If that piece could be purchased … and the rumor is the owner might consider selling,” McDowell said.

Gaukler and other city planners have been looking into options for the two large gravel pit ponds. The ponds are known to host several bird species.

“That area is really important to us for a lot of reasons,” Gaukler said.

Below the confluence of the Bitterroot and Clark Fork rivers, much of the riparian land is private with few conservation easements. But, of course, the Clark Fork Coalition and the county are keeping their eyes on what will happen to the land that used to belong to the Smurfit-Stone pulp mill.

Finally, in Missoula’s North Hills, McDowell pointed out the difference between the Lavalle and Butler creek drainages. While Butler Creek has seen a fair amount of development, Lavalle Creek winds through a large ranch, so much of it remains as it has for decades.

Westslope cutthroat trout still swim in its currents and the uplands above the creek are home to the most undeveloped sagebrush-grassland riparian habitat left in the area, McDowell said.

“See the development in the Butler Creek drainage? That’s what will happen here if there’s no conservation done,” McDowell said.

Vero was inspired by all the open space opportunities in the valley.

“Rivers. Connecting. Wildlife. Birds,” Vero said, ticking off the benefits. “They’re the most important thing.”

Vero will be sworn in as Missoula County's newest commissioner on Monday.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.