Community forest purchase completes Mount Dean Stone complex
(Missoula Current) With the final purchase of 2,500 acres, Five Valleys Land Trust has not only preserved the majority of Mount Dean Stone for future generations, but it also created only the fourth community forest in the state.
On Wednesday evening, a string trio played as rain clouds dispersed, allowing the late-day sun to illuminate the Five Valleys Land Trust tents awaiting celebrants along the House of Sky Trail south of Missoula. A few hundred yards below, in the Skyline Ridge Access parking lot, past and present members of the land trust, The Nature Conservancy and the U.S. Forest Service laughed and shook hands before all helped to install a new sign at the trailhead and then headed to the tents.
Where the map of the Mount Dean Stone previously highlighted public land surrounding only the main trail to the peak, it now includes a large polygon extending south from the House of Sky Trail all the way to Miller Creek.
Prior to Friday, The Nature Conservancy had owned and maintained that land for 15 years. But on Friday, Five Valleys Land Trust closed on the property.
“Everybody had a hand in getting us to this point, whether you realize it or not. It’s a really big deal,” said Whitney Schwab. “We needed an act of Congress to help make it happen, and thankfully, acts of Congress still change things for the good.”
Five Valleys Land Trust started chipping away at preserving land on Mount Dean Stone in 2014, so it’s taken almost a decade to secure the 4,200 acre complex. While The Nature Conservancy and the Forest Service were the major players in this final action, more than 20 organizations and businesses have helped secure the various pieces along the way.
First, the Barmeyer family worked with Five Valleys to get conservation easements on their land at the base of the mountain, which led to the building of the Barmeyer Trail in 2017. At the same time, on Nature Conservancy land on the south side of the mountain, partners were building three other trails.
“We’ve worked diligently as a community to help to get to this ridgeline and beyond. And our partners at The Nature Conservancy, beginning in 2016, said, ‘Boy if you can get up to the top, this would be a fantastic part of the complex,’” Schwab said.
In 2019, Five Valleys hit that goal, acquiring the parcels it needed to create a corridor around a 5-mile trail leading to the summit, and the Mount Dean Stone Preserve was created. Then in 2020, Five Valleys received a Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks grant to build the House of Sky trail from the Dean Stone summit, across state and Nature Conservancy land, to Deer Creek Road. It was completed a year ago.
But still, The Nature Conservancy land waited on the south side of the mountain.
Nature Conservancy project manager Chris Bryant started with the organization just as it took ownership of the area, along with other former timberland, and praised the patience of Nature Conservancy state director Amy Croover for being willing to hang onto the Dean Stone land for the past 15 years.
“This particular piece of ground, about seven or eight years ago, we recognized the importance of this to the community of Missoula and the legacy of all the open space around the valley. The whole town is growing a ton, and so having more space for people to get out on the ground is important to the community,” Bryant said. “We came to Five Valleys Land Trust and started talking about what maybe could happen. We entered an option for them to purchase the ground, and after several amendments and extensions, here we are.”
Five Valleys Land Trust was busily raising money, but such a large piece of land on the outskirts of Missoula isn’t cheap. The sale might not have happened if the Forest Service hadn’t created its Community Forest Program in 2008. The Community Forest and Open Space Conservation Program is a competitive grant program that provides half of the project cost to allow tribal entities, local governments and qualified conservation organizations to create locally-owned forests for community benefits.
So a year ago, Five Valleys started working with Forest Service assistant program manager Kris Temple on meeting the requirements for the grant. The program awarded $600,000 to Five Valleys while the Montana Fish and Wildlife Conservation Trust provided a $100,000 grant and The Nature Conservancy provided additional funds.
Region 1 Deputy Regional Forester Melany Glossa said the grants exist to target areas that could potentially be lost, as more and more of the nation’s few remaining open spaces are lost to development.
“We only pay 50%, so that means that the work you have done in supporting this project and gaining the rest of those funds, it’s an amazing feat,” Glossa said. “You all came together and made it happen with our state and private forestry staff in about under a year, which is amazing. It takes great dedication and real commitment and great connections.”
Missoula’s new community forest is the fourth in the state - and the largest - and one of only 85 nationwide. Other Montana community forests are found near Helena, Troy and Kalispell.
Tim Garcia, USFS State and Private Forestry director, said the Community Forest Program is still fairly new, and the first projects weren’t finished until 2012. But it’s starting to gain attention. Missoula’s forest and the work of The Nature Conservancy could add to the program’s visibility.
“We hope to get more. I think there’s some momentum,” Garcia said. “Now people are understanding and communities are seeing it. When a land trust can say, ‘Hey, it wasn’t that difficult, here’s the hurdles,’ and an organization as big as The Nature Conservancy can really amplify the program. We really see some promise.”
Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at email@example.com.