New Missoula open space plan identifies preservation priorities


Among the “cornerstones” prioritized for protection as open space are Missoula’s North Hills (foreground) and the Pattee Canyon to Miller Creek area (background). (Sherry Devlin/Missoula Current)

When tasked with a big job, sometimes the best way to start is by checking off the easy parts. That’s what the city and county of Missoula have done with their draft 2019 Missoula Urban Area Open Space Plan.

Once approved, the plan will be the first chapter of a larger City-County Parks, Recreation, Open Space and Trails plan, and will guide the next decade of work.

The city rolled out its first open space plan in 1995 and amended it in 2006. But Missoula has changed significantly over the past dozen years, so the local governments decided it was time for a rewrite.

As with many city plans, organizers reached out to the public last year for input on what should change about the plan, if anything. But it turns out that Missoulians are fairly consistent when it comes to favoring open space. So the thrust of the plan hasn’t changed much.

“It’s not tremendously different (from the previous version),” said Kylie Paul, Missoula County natural resource specialist. “There is a new piece about the benefits of open space that we included in response to some of the public outreach. But this is a guiding document – it has no teeth.”

Certain terminology and details of the plan have been clarified, and plan authors added some of the recent science that documents the importance of open space for human health, said Elizabeth Erickson, Missoula Parks and Recreation conservation lands manager.

“It’s really just updating the plan and bringing in new data,” Erickson said. “There are not fundamental policy shifts. It’s more just trying to incorporate conversations we’re hearing in our community around affordability and the housing crisis, our changing climate, and the need for wildlife to be able to move.”

They also included the results of countywide public opinion polls on open space priorities. For example, more than 90 percent of respondents want the county to protect water and air quality, protect land for wildlife habitat, and ensure natural areas are accessible for recreation.

But those desires become harder to realize in a county with a rapidly growing population that has lost a lot of open space over the past few decades.

The plan points out that Missoula County accounts for 10 percent of 113,000 homes constructed in Montana since 1990, and that building boom converted 32,320 acres of land to residential development. In Missoula County, almost half of those houses were constructed outside of incorporated areas and a third of those were built on large lots of 10 acres or more. That devours a lot of rural land.

In general, the plan focuses only on a part of the county from east of Bonner to a little west of the Wye, and from Blue Mountain to Marshall Canyon. Within the Missoula area, it encourages “urban green spaces” – parks, gardens and natural areas – that are connected to each other and larger “anchor areas” of open space outside of town by “corridors,” usually trails or streams.

Using modern GIS software, planners were able to improve the maps showing where each of the three open space components are now or could exist in the future.

They also identified larger “cornerstones,” which are areas of high open space value outside the city that have a hodgepodge of ownership. Cornerstone areas include open land in the North Hills, between Pattee Canyon and Miller Creek, and along the Bitterroot and Clark Fork rivers. If any property becomes available within cornerstone areas, it’s land the governments should consider protecting, the plan says.

For example, the recently approved 124-acre Bluebird project lies in the North Hills cornerstone area.

That’s the one part of the plan that might concern some people if they make the mistake of assuming the city or county would take unilateral action regarding land within the expanded cornerstone areas. Erickson emphasized that the plan is not regulatory or prescriptive; it merely identifies priorities.

“It’s not a zoning map. Our open space program is based on working with voluntary conservation. We only work with landowners who choose a conservation outcome for their properties,” Erickson said. “We’ve had a significant amount of public process already, so I’m hopeful that we’ve been hearing our communities’ wishes.”  

The public process is not over yet. The draft open space plan is open to public comment until May 31. To comment, complete the online survey at www.missoulaparks.org.