As development creeps higher on the mountainsides that encircle Missoula, the rolling, grassy hills north of town serve ever more vitally as the Garden City's most pristine, undeveloped vista. At the same time, our growing city produces an ever greater amount of garbage, speeding the pace at which Allied Waste's landfill, nestled at the foot of those same North Hills, fills up.
All that trash produced a treasure for the ages on Thursday, when Allied Waste inked a conservation easement on more than 300 acres of land situated high in the North Hills. The land, known to many as the Ryan Ranch, was purchased last year along with a 145-acre tract next to the existing landfill, for the express purpose of preserving some of the area's most visible and valuable open space, said Max Bauer, general manager of Allied Waste Services of Montana.
"We've been trying for some time to find an adjacent piece of land where we could do a conservation easement on a large portion of it and give something back to the community," said Bauer on Thursday. "The North Hills have been such a priority for the community for years, and when this opportunity arose, it just fit perfectly."
The deal has its roots in the expansion needs of the landfill, which at the current pace was expected to reach its capacity within 18 years - "not a long time, in the landfill business," noted Bauer. By purchasing the lower portion of the Ryan Ranch, Bauer figures his company now has capacity for the next century.
The upper portion of the ranch, which is situated high above and out of sight from the landfill, wasn't originally part of the deal; but when the opportunity to purchase it came up, Bauer jumped at the chance.
"We took a look at it, and figured if we could negotiate a good price for both, we would take the bottom parcel and the upper parcel would be our gift back to the community," said Bauer, whose family started the Missoula landfill at its current location in the 1960s and later sold it to Allied Waste.
"This has been a personal goal of mine and our family for a lot of years, to be able to do a conservation easement up there," said Bauer. "It took a long time, but it's finally here."
The new easement covers approximately 309 acres of grasslands, woody draws and agricultural land just below the treeline above the landfill. The tract serves as an important winter range for the North Hills elk herd, and home to a diverse array of raptors and other animals, said Pelah Hoyt, conservation project manager with Five Valleys Land Trust.
"We've been hoping for it for such a long time," said Hoyt. "This part of the North Hills has been identified as a priority for open space since at least the early 1990s. ... It has ecological value, it has historical value; and the main thing is that it's an absolutely gorgeous piece of property."
Allied Waste donated 70 percent of the value of the easement, or approximately $1 million, as part of the deal. The remainder of the funds were provided by the city of Missoula's open space bond fund. Five Valleys Land Trust will hold the easement on the property.
The easement specifically allows for controlled public access to the land, which sits adjacent to other open space owned by the city of Missoula. Bauer said that the easement also includes language allowing the North Hills trail system to continue through the property.
"At some point in time - this could take a few years - but a person may be able to hike from bottom of Waterworks Hill all the way over to the Rattlesnake, through this property," said Bauer. "We felt that was an important element."
Regardless of whether anyone ever hikes up to the property, though, Hoyt said the land will provide enjoyment for generations of Missoula residents and visitors.
"You can see it from almost everywhere in town," said Hoyt, "so I think no matter how busy we are in our lives, we can look up there and see those views and know it'll be protected all the way into the future."