In the recent wake of Mount Jumbo’s 20th anniversary, another milestone approaches, marking the emptying of 1995’s $5 million open space bond account.
On Dec. 12, Missoula City Council will hold a public hearing on spending the remaining $389,533.99 on the Montana Rail Link property at Johnson Street, unanimously approved by both the city’s Open Space Advisory and Parks and Conservation Committees.
Open Space Acquisitions Attorney Elizabeth Erickson said that balance has been saved since 2006 to put toward a city park in the Franklin to the Fort neighborhood.
The bond, just the second passed in Missoula after a $500,000 1980 measure, lasted more than 20 years and was responsible, with partners, for purchasing just over 3,263 acres of open space, city parks and trails, and a conservation area.
Open space advocates credit the bond with inspiring other midsize northwestern cities to pass their own such bonds and incurring enough goodwill to pass another bond in 2006 that was twice the size and applied to the entire county.
That bond passed with almost 70 percent of voters approving.
And perhaps the most important influence of the 1995 bond: giving Missoulians almost all of Mount Jumbo and Sentinel, Waterworks Hill, much of the land in the Bitterroot Branch trail and just about any place those who call this city home call their backyard.
“It was really a significant event, and not just in the history of Missoula,” said Greg Tollefson, director of Five Valleys Land Trust from 1991 to 1997.
“Missoula was pretty much the first community of this size, or larger, in the Rocky Mountain West to take a proactive approach to identifying and protecting the open space that gave the community its character.”
Tollefson remembered the election followed two previous failed bonds, which he thought weren’t specific enough in how they’d spend the money.
The 1995 bond though, had the protection of Mount Jumbo against housing developers behind it, a community flashpoint that crossed any lines of demarcation, Tollefson said.
“It was an off-year election. It was a terrible snowy day when people would be disinclined to vote and there was a tremendous turnout,” he said. “The next day on Mount Jumbo up there was a great big smiley face made out of sheets.”
Schools, community groups, Boy Scouts and churches all raised money to cover the $300,000 remaining between money from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and the $2 million the open space bond pledged if passed.
Afterwards, Tollefson said open space advocates from Boise, Helena, Bozeman and the Flathead all looked to Five Valleys for a framework on writing their own bonds, many of which passed and held lands in government control or easements.
That approach left Missoula residents with a lot more room to run and play, and left the city’s parks department with another few thousand acres to manage, most of which didn’t fit the mold of a traditional developed city park.
Donna Gaukler has been Missoula’s Parks and Recreation director since 2002 and has worked in the department since 1991.
She employs a conservation lands manager now, but that position wasn’t in the city’s budget in 1995.
For the decade after Missoula started snatching up open space lands, Gaukler said they contracted with a University of Montana weed specialist – now city council chair Marilyn Marler, who still works as UM’s natural area specialist.
Aside from Marler’s work, Gaukler said the parks department only went onto the open space lands if there was a call or complaint.
But with a matching grant from the Missoula County Weed district, the parks department was able to hire a full-time conservation lands manager in 2005.
“One of the first big things was to get this program underway, because we were falling behind,” Gaukler said. “Once we had that partnership, then the program really started to evolve.”
The parks department oversees and maintains about 4,500 acres, she said and lands manager Morgan Valliant has done his own studies on bird, mammal and insect populations, not to mention grass and tree research, all of which differs wildly from studies of controlled, developed city parks.
It is rare that a city parks department manages this much wild land, Gaukler said, leaving them with few “peer cities” with whom they can compare notes on management plans.
“It’s definitely part of living in the Rocky Mountain West,” she said. “We’re managing for the entire valley in terms of habitat and ecosystem.”
Pelah Hoyt, Five Valleys’ Lands Director, said the way the 1995 bond was spent incurred a lot of trust with Missoula County residents, broadening support for the larger 2006 bond.
Hoyt volunteered her time to help pass that bond and later that year got a job with Five Valleys Land Trust.
In the lead-up to the 2006 bond, she said city and county officials held public meetings around the county to gauge interest in another bond, and what areas were priorities for protection.
“There was tremendous concern about the amount of development at that time and a lot of interest in maintaining their way of life and agricultural land and wildlife habitat,” Hoyt said.
The 2006 bond then, has focused more on protecting those agricultural lands. Just in the last month two private working farms were placed in conservation easements, which promise to never open up the land for development or end farm or ranch productions, even if it changes owners.
The 1995 bond was only to be spent in city limits, per the ballot language, and could be spent on developed parks; something the 2006 bond wasn’t set up to do.
Those two bonds have established and reaffirmed Missoula’s conservation ethic, Tollefson said. That isn’t likely to go away.
Many Missoulians’ favorite part of living here is the easy access to open space and hiking trails, and it’s lauded in tourist and real estate information as a unique asset that can’t be found anywhere else.
“Open space is something that’s so tangible,” Erickson said. “You can go out and touch them and experience them.”
The 2006 bond is dwindling as well – the city and county have just a little under $800,000 apiece left of the original $10 million.
And both have proposals in the works – Kali Becher, a rural landscape scientist with Missoula County Community and Planning Services, said they’re working on another land deal, and Erickson estimated bringing three to four deals for approval in 2017.
There aren’t any firm plans to put another open space bond on the ballot, but with funds winding down and plenty of space left in the county to protect, Tollefson was pretty sure the support would be there.
“I can say this without any actual first-hand knowledge,” Tollefson said. “The need remains. We have prime farmland that’s disappearing every day.”
“There’s lust for more.”