Dwindling open space funds have advocates, managers looking ahead

The South Hills Spur offers unfettered views of the Missoula Valley, even on a rainy day. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

By a 70 percent margin, Missoula County voters easily approved a $10 million open space bond in 2006, citing the need to protect the area’s natural resources from the brisk pace of urbanization and development.

More than a decade later, the funds have helped conserve thousands of acres of open space, pasture land and public access. But funding is running low and “life after the bond” is less certain than it was when the money was there.

“We’ve had a steady stream of projects this year and have continued to see interest and demand in the open space bond for conservation and resource protection,” said Lisa Moise, the county’s open lands program manager. “That interest and demand isn’t going to go away, but it’s hard to predict how long those open space funds will last.”

The 2006 Open Space Bond split $10 million evenly between the city and county. Eleven years later, the county has roughly $600,000 remaining in its share of the bond while the city’s portion will drop to around $320,000.

The county’s portion represents what’s left in the coffers if commissioners approve funding this month to conserve a 100-acre agriculture and wildlife parcel in Woodworth Meadows. The city’s portion represents the remainder if approval is granted to conserve 160 acres at the Oxbow Cattle Ranch in the Missoula Valley.

With the demand for conservation strong but money running low, some are beginning to ask if Missoula is ready to support a new open space bond.

“We’ve been talking for years in the community about people being aware of the fact that we’re running out of open space funding,” said Grant Kier, the outgoing director of Five Valleys Land Trust.

“We’ve been sensitive to other goals in the community and sensitive to the pace at which people can absorb additional tax burdens. But what we see over and over again are the core values of the people in the county and in Missoula who feel this is important.”

During Fiscal Year 2017, Missoula County commissioners approved at least six open space projects, effectively conserving around 833 acres.

The city also has approved several projects over the past year, including 50 acres near the Bitterroot River in Lower Miller Creek and 5 acres near the Clark Fork River to protect public access.

“In my opinion, it’s been a wildly successful program,” said Elizabeth Erickson, the city’s open space program manager. “Every single one of these projects has seen a huge, collaborative effort to get it to the finish line. If we want our city and county bond programs to continue, we’ll need to seek additional funding.”

When and how that happens is far from certain, though any formal request must be brought to Missoula County commissioners. They would be required to hold a public hearing on the issue before placing a bond measure on the ballot.

Both Erickson and Moise said no such effort is underway, to the best of their knowledge. But other conservation advocates believe momentum could be building in that direction as the 2006 Open Space Bond reaches the end of its life.

“We’re going to be making a case over the year or two ahead, and that’s (the new executive director’s) big charge with the board – to make the case that this is the right kind of thing to stay invested in and the right kind of thing to showcase what Missoula is about and what Missoula County can be about,” said Kier.

Missoula County voters first approved a $5 million open space bond in 1995, which purchased more than 3,300 acres during its 10-year life. When that measure was approved, the county’s population was listed at 78,000 residents.

The city’s population alone nearly equals that amount while the county’s population now stands at 117,000 residents. As the population increases, the city and county both have the opportunity to help conserve several thousand acres on Mount Dean Stone – a project that carries similar values of Mount Sentinel and Mount Jumbo, both of which have been protected.

But conserving Dean Stone could run north of $1 million – funding that is no longer available in the 2006 Open Space Bond.

“The will is certainly there and the community support is there,” said Erickson. “It presents an amazing opportunity for our community to expand recreational use and wildlife habitat.”