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Editor's note: With the new year, the Missoulian begins an in-depth look at Missoula County's remaining open spaces and efforts to preserve some of those places from development. We continue Monday with the first of a nine-part series covering each of the county's planning regions.

Orville Daniels' love affair with Montana began years ago, with an early morning glimpse of Trapper Peak framed in the rear window of his family's station wagon.

Decades have passed, children reared and an eventful career steering the U.S. Forest Service through some troubled times, yet Daniels still remembers that one brief moment that would help to shape his life.

Daniels was catching some shut-eye in the back of the station wagon while his wife negotiated the windy road through the Bitterroot Valley on a cross-country trip to the Oregon coast when something woke him. He sat up and peered out the window.

And there was Trapper Peak, shimmering in the morning sun.

"I just remember thinking, 'Oh my goodness. This is wonderful,' " Daniels said. "I'll never forget that moment."

"Back then, the drive through the Bitterroot Valley was different - it was almost a farm-to-market road - and the place was full of farms surrounded by beautiful mountains," he remembered.

Now, when people convince him to speak at a gathering, Daniels often asks his audience that question so important to many Montanans: Can you still remember the moment you fell in love with this place?

"You can almost see them remember it. Their eyes go down. They smile. They can remember when that awareness occurred," he said. "Most of us haven't been here all that long. It's not hard for us to think back that far."

On the flipside of that, most have also been here long enough to have witnessed the change that's come with an influx of people wanting to create their own lives in this beautiful place.

Subdivisions springing up in what used to be prime wildlife wintering areas, dramatic increases in property and home prices outpacing wages, a loss of rich farmland - slow, subtle changes that over time can impact the very fabric of the landscape that has been attracting people to Montana for more than a century.

In the 1950s, Missoula residents often fought the monotony of Montana's long gray winters with a Sunday drive to the tiny town of Lolo. Back then, elk would make their way down to the field now occupied by the elementary school and people would enjoy the day watching their antics.

That, of course, doesn't happen anymore.

"Those are the subtle kind of losses that can change the valley so that it's no longer as beautiful as it once was," said Daniels. "I'm not a preservationist … I believe we all have to live in this world, but I am afraid if we're not careful that we'll fill this valley up right to the forest boundary. Everything will change, and people will wonder why we didn't do more."

No one is predicting that population growth is going to slow in this part of the world.

The 2000 census put Missoula County's population at 95,802 - today, the estimate is 99,018 residents. The Montana Department of Commerce guesses the county's population will swell to a few more than 125,000 by 2020.

Considering the fact that nearly half of Missoula County's 1,673,698 acres are controlled by federal, state or local governments and another 26 percent is owned by corporations - mostly Plum Creek - that anticipated population growth will put tremendous pressure on the 19 percent that's in private ownership.

Against that backdrop, the Missoula County commissioners decided last spring to contract with Missoula's Five Valleys Land Trust to start conversations with people from all parts of the county on what, if anything, should be done to guide the growth that's sure to come.

In meeting halls and community centers throughout the county, small groups of interested citizens came together this past summer and fall to share their concerns in a first round of meetings with the newly formed Missoula County Open Lands Working Group.

The group, which includes two representatives from each of nine planning regions in the county, is gathering information and learning about a wide variety of tools that could help protect some of the last remaining open lands in the county. By June, they hope to have a report - including recommendations - to present to the commissioners.

Missoula County Commissioner Jean Curtiss has attended many of the meetings. The common thread, she said, is the worry over uncontrolled growth and its potential to eventually diminish the very landscape that brought people here in the first place.

"People all share the same frustrations, the same worries," Curtiss said. "They're all scared of what growth is doing to their area. They all want to talk about how we can control or guide it."

Right now, the commission often feels like its hands are tied.

"Almost every week, we preside over subdivisions of land," said Commissioner Bill Carey. "There's very little we can do once it gets to that point. The upshot of that is before you know it, a significant portion of the open space that's left will be gone."

"We're trying to be proactive," he said.

Protecting open space can take many forms.

The working group voted recently to encourage the commission to seek a $20 million bond that could be used in a variety of ways to preserve open space, including outright purchase or buying conservation easements from family farmers.

But that's only one tool, said Donna Erickson of Five Valleys Land Trust. Other tools that could help farmers and ranchers stay on the land, and therefore protect open space, include tax incentives, economic development strategies and regulatory tools.

"We have to be creative. We have to look beyond the obvious," Erickson said. "There's no one silver bullet. It's important for us to explore a variety of ideas and remain sensitive that what might work in one area may not in another.

"Our goal is finding a way to craft a package of land use, economic development and taxation tools into an optimum combination so that people can pick and choose to achieve the objectives that they've identified," she said.

Right from the beginning, the commission knew it was going to be important to reach out to all corners of the county. It had heard from rural residents worried that the focus too often falls on the city of Missoula.

"What makes this process so unique is it's landowner driven," said Five Valleys Land Trust executive director Wendy Ninteman. "It's very different than what's been done before. It brings some inherent challenges and also some delights. It's so real. These are the people who are most affected and they understand the pressures that their particular areas are feeling. They are the real deal.

"It's not an academic conversation for them," she said. "Instead, it's a community coming together looking for answers."

Jackie Corday, the city of Missoula's open space manager, said a group similar to the county's is working to update the city's 10-year-old open space plan. The city passed a $5 million bond issue in 1995, and that money was used to purchase acreage on mounts Jumbo and Sentinel, a conservation easement in the North Hills, 120 acres along the Clark Fork River and 100 acres in the Fort Missoula complex.

"Hopefully, the city and county can work together now to create a broader vision for open space," said Corday, who also serves as a technical adviser for the county's working group. "So far, I think it's going really well, but we are at a critical place. There is so much to be decided, and so there are so many details that have to be worked out."

Folks are ready to roll up their sleeves and go to work.

People have seen the consequences of growth over the last 10 years in the Bitterroot and Missoula valleys. They understand how fast the changes can occur and they are taking notice.

In a recent poll conducted by Moore Information for the Missoula County commission, people overwhelmingly identified growth and development as the issue that concerns them most. Issues like protection of drinking water supplies, preserving important wildlife habitat and managing growth were important to the 400 people polled.

"What those people were telling us is that as our landscape changes, it's really important to protect water quality, wildlife habitat and family farms," said Ninteman.

"It's important that people understand that we're not talking about stopping growth," she said. "Instead, we're searching for ways to manage that growth so that we can preserve the quality of life that brought us all here. It's really about accepting the fact that we are growing and that we want to maintain these core values through this period of change.

"We hope that our report will be the start of something rather than the end of something," she said. "There's going to be people who say, 'Why should we bother? It's already gone.' I'd reply, 'Because we have to, because we care.' "

In the 26 years that Daniels spent working as supervisor of the Lolo and Bitterroot national forests, he talked with literally thousands of people about the area and its future.

"The visual values of the national forest lands and their natural beauty was one of those things that I fought for all along," he said. "At one point, I reduced the timber program by 50 percent when it became apparent that it was too high. I did whatever it took to protect those values.

"I didn't do that just because I liked them. It's what the bulk of the people told me was important to them. It was their values that I was protecting."

It's not enough to center all attention on federal and state lands.

"The national forests will always be managed well for the people," he said. "The Forest Service is a good organization. We have a political process, a system of checks and balances."

"The threat to our lifestyle is on the private lands … The Forest Service boundary on the Bitterroots is halfway up the mountain clear past Darby. As a Forest Service supervisor, I could protect Lolo Peak. What I couldn't do was protect the lower portion of the mountain from a ski area going in."

In the early 1900s, the Anaconda Co. clearcut the bottom half of the Bitterroots. Now, 100 years later, the trees have grown back and the area is home to a herd of 10,000 elk that are very dependent on private land for winter range.

"The challenges that we face to protect this landscape that we all love are tremendous," Daniels said. "Change is inevitable. It's up to us to decide what we do with it."

Of all the thousands of letters and notes that Daniels received over his tenure in the Forest Service, there's one that rises to the top.

It came on a plain piece of tablet paper, handwritten by a 90-year-old blind resident of a nursing home. She thanked the agency for its efforts in protecting the areas she'd learned to love and then she asked a simple question: "Are the mountains as beautiful as they always were?"

"I had to lie to her," Daniels remembers. "For me, it was one of the most powerful pieces of public input I ever received. I carry it with me still.

"I believe deep down that most Montanans love those same values, but sometimes they don't realize how easily they are lost."

Reporter Perry Backus can be reached at 523-5259 or at

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