A small North Hills knob overlooking downtown Missoula has been the platform for thousands of photos over the years, many depicting the Missoula Valley’s transition from rural to urban.
With its sweeping views and easy access off Greenough Drive, it’s no wonder this hill and the eroding trail that guides you here is Missoula’s busiest, accommodating an estimated 100,000 people each year – residents and visitors alike.
“It was never designed for the level of use it’s getting,” said Morgan Valliant. “In fact, it was never designed at all. It’s our main trailhead, and it’s falling apart.”
Valliant, the city’s conservation lands manager, and Elizabeth Erickson, the city’s open space program manager, recently hiked to the overlook and considered Missoula’s future as a growing city. The countywide population is projected to reach 144,000 residents in 25 years, the majority of them living in the Missoula Valley.
Whether that comes into play next week remains to be seen as voters across Missoula County consider a new $15 million open space bond. Voters in the city will also weigh a stewardship levy that would generate $500,000 a year for a wide range of maintenance needs and other projects that are currently unfunded.
That includes maintenance and improvements to the city’s busiest trail off Greenough Drive. The project, if funded by voters, would install a formal parking lot and a mile-long loop designed for those with mobility issues.
“This would create a loop trail with great views of the city, and turn this main trailhead into what it actually should look like,” Valliant said. “It’s currently an unfunded project, but the levy would support this tremendously. We’ve got plans for multiple other trailheads like this.”
The debate over a new open space bond and maintenance levy has simmered for months, ever since city and county leaders agreed to place them on the ballot back in July.
As in all debates, a number of details have been misrepresented, including the laws that guide the use of open space bonds. Missoula voters have passed several bonds in the past, though the funding they provided could not be used for general maintenance under current law.
“General obligation bond funds, and particularly open space bonds, are really restricted on how they can be used,” Erickson said. “They can be used for land acquisition, and they can be used for capital improvement projects, or something that begins and ends. But that doesn’t cover the routine costs of actually maintaining those properties once they’re in place.”
Missoula passed its first open space bond in 1980 and has followed suit several times, including a $5 million bond in 1995 and a $10 million bond in 2006.
The funding those bonds provided achieved a number of iconic goals, such as protecting Mount Jumbo and Mount Sentinel as open space, and preserving the North Hills from sure development.
But they’ve also achieved lesser goals, like protecting working agricultural lands in the Missoula Valley to keep them in operation to provide locally sourced food. They’ve preserved portions of the Clark Fork River floodplain, allowing the river to ebb and flow.
Critical wildlife habitat and key corridors have been preserved, and easements needed to connect the valley’s trail network were set in place, including the Milwaukee Trail from Russell to Reserve.
Funding from the bond and levy would help finish and maintain what past Missoula residents have already started, Erickson said.
“We have areas that are a geographical priority, not just for additional land protection, but for making connections between properties that are already protected,” Erickson said. “The goal is to have a connected open space system where we have these larger anchor areas connected with corridors, like a commuter trail or a dirt trail, and linking those with our urban parks and natural areas.”
Funding from the levy would also enable Valliant and his team of employees to make a number of other improvements to the system, which current funding levels don’t allow. That includes research monitoring to better understand visitor use and provide accurate trail reports.
It would also help fund better trail signs, kiosks and interpretive signs highlighting the history of Missoula’s open spaces and key landmarks. As it stands, Valliant said, the city’s current trail map shows just 11 percent of the actual trail system.
There is no money in the current budget to accomplish any of that, Valliant said.
“Overall, my budget has been incredibly stagnant,” he said. “What has not been stagnant is the pace of people moving to Missoula. We have more people here now than ever before, and it’s going to continue to grow. If we really want to balance that use and protect those natural characteristics, we’ve got to invest.”
There may be economic benefits of doing so, Valliant said, citing several recent reports. Nonresident visitors spent more than $294 million in Missoula County in 2017, and a large portion of that was driven by recreational tourism.
Recent bonds have also brought in more grant money than the bonds themselves. The 2006 open space bond leveraged nearly $30 million in state and federal funding, far exceeding its $10 million cost.
Valliant said a new bond and levy would enable his office to focus more resources on pursuing future grants. Such funding would go far in improving river access and restoring such historic sites as the Moon-Randolph Homestead, Valliant said.
“We bring in 30 cents on the dollar through grants, and we could do a lot more of that if we had someone to pursue more of those funds,” he said. “There’s a lot there that tells the story of our community. If want to preserve it, we’ve got to invest in its maintenance.”
Opponents of the bond contend that preserving open space in vulnerable areas of the Missoula Valley will only serve to drive up housing prices, something advocates of the bond firmly refute.
Without the foresight of those in the past and their efforts to secure open space, Valliant said, the city would look and feel much different.
“Our valley would look incredibly different if the North Hills had been developed, if the bench on Jumbo had been developed, or Sentinel and the Rattlesnake greenbelt,” he said. “The development is going to the west of town. Having the ability to continue to conserve lands and viewsheds is just another tool in keeping Missoula, Missoula, and keeping that continuity.”