Heading north on Highway 93 up Evaro Hill, motorists pass a big bald knob above the left side of the road.
Houses dot the base of the hill, but the knob remains as grassy as the day Gaspard Deschamps started ranching it in 1877. Now his descendants hope a conservation easement will keep it that way forever.
"I think it would look better like this," 7-year-old Kayla Deschamps said as she surveyed the undeveloped hillsides with her grandparents, Charlie and Nancy Deschamps. To the north, she could see Gray Wolf Mountain and the southern tip of the Mission Mountains Wilderness. The Sapphire Range stretched to the south, with the Bitterroot Mountains hidden behind the bulk of Lolo Peak. Missoula's Mount Sentinel and the Hellgate Canyon formed the eastern rim, while the Clark Fork River flowed away to the west.
Beneath Kayla's feet were dried elk droppings. While not the most scenic part of the property, they were enough to attract the attention of Mike Mueller, lands program manager for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. The hill provides winter and spring range for about 75 elk.
"Millions of people have been looking at this landscape," Mueller said on a tour of the property Tuesday afternoon. "It's just so cool it will stay like this."
The Deschamps have been working with the foundation to protect 1,036 acres of their hilltop. The land has an appraised value of $1.3 million on the open market. Its development rights are worth $700,000. Under a proposed contract with Missoula's local governments, the Deschamps would prohibit development on the land in return for $350,000 from the city and county open space bond accounts.
The family would donate the remaining value of their development rights as part of a conservation easement held by the foundation. Mueller said the family would continue to own and use the property as a working ranch, and continue to pay taxes on it. But only one new cabin would be allowed, in a corner of land already abutting developments lower on the hillside.
Missoula County Commissioners Michele Landquist and Bill Carey joined in the tour.
"I look at the condition of the land and how it's cared for," Landquist said of her decision-making process. The Deschamps property would keep working agricultural land active in the county, provide for wildlife and prevent a highly visible natural landmark from getting overrun with housing, she said.
The family is also working out an agreement with the city Parks and Recreation Department to allow field trips during spring wildflower and winter tracking seasons.
The Missoula County Open Lands Advisory Committee and City Open Space Advisory Committee have already approved the deal. The City Council and county commissioners have a joint meeting set for Oct. 4 to pass final judgment on the idea.
Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at email@example.com.