Even in the least accommodating weather — the often slushy, unreliable days of February — Missoulians can be found outdoors in droves, enjoying the parks, trails and open space that do so much to enhance the quality of life in our shared home.

In addition to using them frequently, Missoulians show our lasting love of these places at the polls and with our hard-earned money. From the original open space bond approved by city voters nearly 40 years ago to the most recent parks and trails bond passed by voters in 2014, Missoulians have invested repeatedly in these outdoor public spaces.

It’s time to take a hand in guiding that investment through the next 10 years. The city’s Parks and Recreation Department and the county’s Parks, Trails and Open Lands division are joining forces to begin work on a new master plan to help shape the next decade of Missoula’s parks, trails and open lands. They are counting on public participation to ensure this process results in a plan that reflects local priorities and meets Missoula’s needs for the foreseeable future.

An open house set for this Tuesday evening is one of the first steps in a process that will unfold over the coming year, and conclude with the creation of Missoula’s first-ever Parks, Recreation, Open Space and Trails (called PROST) plan.

It could be that most city and county residents are perfectly happy with the status quo and see no reason to make major changes. Or, now that so much progress has been made on the priorities identified more than a decade ago, new goals might be in order. In any case, it’s an opportunity to weigh in on an issue of clear importance to a large portion of the community.

In addition to inviting public participation through open houses and official updates, the plan will incorporate the results of a statistically valid survey of residents paid for by the Missoula County Parks, Trails and Open Lands Program. Missoula Parks and Rec is picking up the tab for the rest of the public process out of its existing operating budget.

Once complete, the new plan will replace two others: the 2004 Master Parks and Recreation Plan for the Greater Missoula Area and the 1995 Missoula Urban Area Open Space Plan that was updated in 2006e. However, portions of those documents will likely be incorporated into the new guidelines, as both “contain essential planning strategies and benchmarks,” according to City Parks and Recreation Director Donna Gaukler.

While the current parks and recreation plan has provided important guidance, it has not changed significantly since 2004, even as new land use regulations took effect and despite the passage, in 2014, of a $38 million Missoula County Parks and Trails bond measure. The city’s open space plan, meanwhile, has not been revised since 2006 – the same year more than 70 percent of Missoula County voters cast a ballot in favor of a $10 million open space bond.

It’s apparent that parks, trails and open space have only grown in popularity over the years. Missoula passed its very first open space bond in 1980, for a mere $500,000. By 1995, city voters were willing to approve a $5 million bond, providing for the purchase of land on Mounts Jumbo and Sentinel, the North Hills and the corridor that became the Bitterroot Branch Trail, among other favorite places.

The city now manages thousands of acres of open space, and employs a conservation lands manager and an open space program manager. The city and county have worked together to connect trails, maintain parks and expand recreational opportunities, building partnerships with other major land managers in the county – including the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, University of Montana – as well as numerous private landowners.

When completed, the final plan will identify other potential partnerships, provide GIS mapping, and enlist the help of consults to evaluate program services, funding and needs.

It makes sense to formalize coordination between city and county management. It also makes sense to take stock of the land acquisitions that have been made thus far, so that future property purchases can be focused on the areas of highest need.

For one, we need a clearer vision for sensitive agricultural land that’s likely to be developed. Only a few years ago, in December 2015, Missoula County commissioners were weighing whether to require developers to adhere to strict new regulations when pursuing projects on agricultural lands.

With no major development projects imminent, in early 2016 commissioners struck much of the language that would have required developers to pay mitigation fees on farm lands, instead approving more flexible regulations that require subdivision designs to “reasonably mitigate potentially significant adverse impacts to agriculture and agricultural water facilities.” During the years since then, however, Missoula has experienced an unprecedented building boom. 

At the same time, key local farmland has been preserved through a number of conservation easements, a voluntary incentive that helps preserve irreplaceable soils and a way of life.

But both for the sake of conserving more prime agricultural lands in Missoula and to provide a bit more certainty for developers, Missoula County should have a forward-looking plan in place for its prime agricultural soils and farms.

The river and riverbanks are also high-value assets for both housing developers and for those who prize public access to the waters that flow through Missoula County. And any final plan should also make sure the most popular trails and parks are able to handle increasing traffic, of course.

There’s a lot to chew on, certainly. Fortunately, there’s plenty of time to digest it all. Start by taking the first bite this Tuesday by attending the open house.

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