As plans for Marshall Mountain move forward, county grapples with bad behavior in canyon

Marshall Canyon Road sits east of Missoula and passes the old Marshall Mountain ski area, which could soon fall into public ownership. Issues along the road, however, have area residents concerned. (Courtesy photo)

Citing crime, littering and environmental impacts, landowners along Marshall Canyon Road have asked Missoula County to implement restrictions on overnight parking and camping, even as a master plan for Marshall Mountain itself moves forward.

The U.S. Forest Service has concerns of its own, as do other stakeholders with an eye on the future of Marshall Mountain, public access and environmental stewardship.

“My family has lived on Marshall Canyon Road since 1999,” said Eileen Flanagan-Lewis. “As Marshall Mountain has grown in popularity and become a recreational hot spot, so too has it seen a massive increase in use from those that have a negative impact on the area.”

Lewis said those impacts include extended-stay camping, alcohol and drug use, dumping, shooting guns at night, poaching, vandalism and untrained dogs running wild, among others. Hiking alone is unsafe, she said, and vagrants have harassed those out recreating.

She said the problems have grown worse as use of Marshall Mountain has increased.

“Especially with the movement of making Marshall Mountain public access moves forward, it’s really important to enact these regulations in the name of improving public safety and mitigating environmental public health impacts, as well as conserving the nature of Marshall Canyon,” Lewis said.

Marshall Mountain has been a source of community debate for the past several months, starting with the proposed sale of 165 acres at the base of the former ski hill to a private owner. That transaction fell through and this week, Izzy Dog LLC closed on the property.

The corporation is comprised of Rick and Rika Wishcamper, along with Pam and Sandy Volkmann. They intend to place the mountain into public ownership and join the city in a public process detailing the mountain’s future use and management.

“We’re working with the city of Missoula, Five Valleys Land Trust, the USFS and other stakeholders to design and embark on a public planning process for future use and recreational development of the mountain,” Izzy Dog wrote in a letter to the county. “The city expects this process to begin in September and take six to ten months to complete.”

Izzy Dog stakeholders described the process as a comprehensive one that will involve a wide array of groups and interests. It’s expected to result in public ownership of the mountain and greater use.

“With such a process ready to begin, we request the commissioners wait to take action regarding the issues of parking and overnight camping on Marshall Canyon Road until after the public comment period is complete,” Izzy Dog concluded.

The new owners of Marshall Mountain intend to place the property into public ownership and join the city in a public process detailing the mountain’s future use and management.

But area residents said 10 months may be too long to wait given the issues taking place along Marshall Canyon Road. Just this week, Lewis said, residents cleaned up an oil spill created by a nonresident abusing the area.

Marshall Canyon Road begins at Highway 200 and runs several miles north to the old ski hill and beyond, where it intersects with Forest Service property. It includes a 60-foot right-of-way, which the county has jurisdiction over. As such, it can regulate parking and other activities along the roadway.

Over the years, many have parked along the road for a variety of activities, from fishing Marshall Creek to setting off onto Forest Service land to hunt and hike. In some cases, they may not return to their vehicle by sundown, or for a few days.

But others are violating the public trust, according to Lewis, who named a long list of problems taking place along the road. While the public has the right to leave the right-of-way and go onto public and private land to camp overnight, the county can regulate parking and other activities within the right-of-way.

Commissioners are sympathetic to Lewis’ concerns.

“What you’re talking about is occurring at so many of our river access sites and land access sites as our population increases, and increases with people who moved here in part to take advantage of these sites,” said Commissioner Josh Slotnick. “It behooves us to come up with ways to say yes to access and no to bad behavior.”

Still, at least for now, the county is reluctant to take action, for both legal reasons and the prickly issue of limiting public access due to parking. With the Forest Service aware of the issue and plans for Marshall Mountain moving forward, the county will seek input from other stakeholders in search of solutions to the concerns of residents along Marshall Canyon Road.

“One could imagine a future where the public was allowed to park at what is now Marshall Mountain in the parking lot and go hiking or hunting and come back two days later,” said Slotnick. “If such a thing did exist, at that point it would make sense to say no to parking or camping along the road.”

Commissioner Dave Strohmaier agreed.

“We don’t have the ability to regulate camping in Missoula County. We do that by proxy by regulating parking,” he said. “I don’t think parking regulations would be at odds with the long-term planning that’s going on at Marshall Mountain. The problem is the unintended consequences, but I think there could be a solution here.”