By Martin Kidston

Over the past decade, funding from the City-County Open Space Bond has helped protect more than 29,000 acres, including 304 acres of winter range in Missoula's North Hills and 220 forested acres in Marshall Canyon.

From parks and trails to working ranches, the bond program has conserved open and wild places in perpetuity throughout the greater Missoula area. For $10 million, supporters believe, the effort has paid dividends, leveraging an additional $3.80 for every dollar spent.

“One of the reasons people love to live here, we have this urban center down in here the valley, and yet we have all of this wild country,” said Elizabeth Erickson, the city's open space acquisitions attorney. “We have these beautiful places protected in perpetuity because of our program.”

Yet Erickson and Kali Becher, a rural landscape scientist who manages the program for Missoula County, said funding available from the Open Space Bond is running low. More than $7.1 million has been spent over the past 10 years, leaving just $1.3 million left to the county and $1.7 million remaining for the city.

With several additional conservation projects now in the pipeline, the city's portion could drop below $600,000 by year's end. That has left city officials and open-space advocates discussing the value of placing another bond before voters in the coming years.

“I'm extremely interested in seeing another open space bond passed, if not next year, then the year after,” said Ward 6 council member Marilyn Marler. “This is one of the most important things about Missoula, that we keep funding these projects.”

Members of the City Council's Parks and Conservation Committee broached the issue on Wednesday as Becker and Erickson provided details on where funding from the bond has been spent.

The program, they agreed, has been highly successful in protecting open space, working ranches and wildlife habitat. For every dollar spent from the bond, an additional $3.80 has been leveraged for conservation work.

Still, several members of the council believe the city is falling short on its responsibility to manage the land it acquires through the bond. While city staff does the best it can with the resources it has, they said, funding must be found to address stewardship.

“I don't think we can keep on this trajectory – it's not sustainable,” said Ward 3 council member Emily Bentley. “If we're going to go out for another bond or ask for money in the future, we need to find a way of building conservation into that bond.”

Since the 2006 Open Space Bond was passed, the county has achieved 22 projects, including 19 conservation easements and three acquisitions. Of the $5 million allocated to the county, roughly $3.86 million has been spent.

The effort has protected 25,000 acres in the county through conservation easements, and 865 acres through acquisitions, including those held by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks at the Marshall Creek Wildlife Management Area and Traveler's Rest State Park.

“It really has created some nice connectivity across the landscape,” said Becher. “We wouldn't have accomplished all of this without the land owners who willingly decided to pursue a conservation easement, as well as all the amazing land trusts who have provided additional funding.”

On the city side, funding from the bond has protected roughly 3,000 acres, including 2,485 acres listed as conservation. Of the city's $5 million allocation, roughly $1.7 million remains, though that could drop by year's end as four new projects make their way to the council, including efforts to preserve a large Grass Valley ranch.

“If all those come through and are approved at the requested funding level, there would be just under $600,000 left in the city's portion of open space,” said Erickson. “The bond funds are certainly getting down.”

Talk of a new open space bond has been whispered for the past few years, though it's now out in the open. It also has the philosophical support of several council members, though stewardship has also entered the discussion on funding.

“We have an interest in stewarding the lands we've acquired, and stewarding any future lands we acquire,” said Ward 4 council member John DiBari. “There has been millions of dollars of money invested in conservation, and I think it's incumbent on us to recognize that we have a responsibility as a body that decides how land gets used to ensure those investments in conservation aren't wasted.”

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