As dusk gathered, so did the crowd on Mount Jumbo’s southwest face.
It was the evening of the fourth day of October in 2006. By the time Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones rushed the stage in Washington-Grizzly Stadium across the river to the opening strains of “Jumping Jack Flash,” hundreds stood or sat in the darkness on the slopes of Jumbo for a free and very audible rock and roll show, the likes of which Missoula had never seen.
Home to 75 elk and at least one large moose that wandered down to Cherry Street a couple of years ago; scene of a devastating avalanche on the last day of February 2014, and playground to a steady stream of hikers and paragliders, the “Elephant Hill” that frames the northeast end of the Missoula Valley became Missoula’s own 20 years ago.
On Nov. 21, 1996, Florence Smith, a retired social studies teacher, sold 225 acres of Mount Jumbo stretching from Interstate 90 almost to the summit, a parcel that encompassed the “L” and the bench from which many of the Stones gawkers watched 10 years later.
It was the last of four properties secured in ‘96 by Five Valleys Land Trust and a host of partners that included Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the U.S. Forest Service to preserve Mount Jumbo from development. The purchases amounted to more than 1,600 acres and cost $3.3 million.
Two million dollars of that cost were earmarked from a $5 million open space bond passed by Missoula city voters the year before. Five Valleys led the effort to raise the rest of the purchase price, with substantial support from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and hundreds of individual contributions and pledges. Because $100,000 of the pledges to Jumbo weren’t available until the following year, the Nature Conservancy loaned the money, interest-free, to Five Valleys, which turned Jumbo over to the city in 1997.
On Saturday, runners and revelers planned to cut an anniversary cake and talk about the city’s purchase of the mountain and the 20 years of preservation projects that have followed.
The celebration was scheduled after Run Wild Missoula’s 15K Elk Ramble over the Jumbo saddle to Marshall Creek and back, through 216 acres on the backside that were added to city holdings in 2010. The Elk Ramble has become the annual “farewell to the mountain” run before the North and South Zones of Jumbo are closed Dec. 1 to protect elk wintering grounds.
Twenty years later, it’s impossible to quantify the impact the preservation of Mount Jumbo has had.
Would the bench where those Rolling Stones fans gathered be someone’s back yard? How many trophy homes would have crept higher up the mountain above the Rattlesnake Valley? What fate awaited the elk herd?
What’s more certain is the purchases were “a cornerstone of the city’s open-space system that’s loved and used by many humans and wildlife alike,” Missoula’s open space program manager Elizabeth Erickson said.
“My impression is it really opened the community’s mind to what it could achieve in terms of land preservation,” said Grant Kier, executive director of Five Valleys Land Trust (FVLT).
The success started with the passage of the $5 million open-space bond in 1995. It came on the heels of two unsuccessful countywide attempts in 1994.
“One thing I remember very clearly was that, as we approached the vote, almost everybody I knew said, 'You’ll never pass that bond,'” said John Talbot, a founder and longtime board member of Five Valleys Land Trust. “'People aren’t going to go for that much money.' But, by God, it passed, and I think it passed primarily on the strength of people in Missoula wanting to see Mount Jumbo remain the way it was and not get developed California-like on those slopes.”
Talbot said even he thought it was a dream at first. But Greg Tollefson, who headed Five Valleys at the time, “was absolutely convinced we could get it done,” he said.
The land trust itself was fledgling, with many of its land conservation projects far from the streets of Missoula. The Mount Jumbo purchase opened other doors.
“Having something right on the edge of Missoula brought the idea of land conservation to people who were living in the urban area,” said Talbot.
That in turn boosted the profile of Five Valleys Land Trust, which gradually transitioned from accepting conservation easements to pursuing large tracts of land itself.
Kier said the original large purchases on Mount Jumbo in 1996 have been catalysts to “a lot of other things,” including four subsequent additions on the same mountain:
• In 2001, 10 acres of the Marshall Cromwell property in the saddle were purchased for $40,000 and sold to adjoining landowners after conservation and public access easements were placed on them. The landowners placed conservation easements on 23 additional acres in the area and made a $16,000 gift to the open space bond.
• In 2009, the $31,000 purchase of 59 acres on the east side of Jumbo above East Missoula made it possible for people to hike all the way into Missoula on public land. The land was owned by the Yawle Seven, a partnership formed by “guys who were into John Elway,” a city official said.
• In 2010, the city completed purchase of the 216 acres on the Marshall Canyon side of the mountain for $410,000, preserving a well-used road over the saddle, sections of which date back to aboriginal times.
• In 2011, a $9,910 conservation easement was purchased on 26 acres on the lower west slope of Jumbo north of the "L" from Bonnie Thompson and Rodney and Barbara Huff.
The latter three purchases followed on the heels of the $10 million open-space bond passed in 2006, which the city and county share.
“I think the community realized the success of the Mount Jumbo purchase and that led to a desire to keep investing in open space in 2006,” said Kier, who took over as executive director of Five Valleys the following year from Wendy Ninteman. Ninteman had succeeded Tollefson in 1998.
It’s a Missoula mind frame now.
“What we have been told time and time again is how much this community values its access to outdoor recreation, open space and our clean rivers,” Kier said. “Those are the qualities of life we have here.”
That translates to the Missoula business community, which tells Kier that Missoula is able to “punch above our weight” in attracting talent from around the world, in large part because of its ready access to outdoor amenities.
The 1995 open space bond was paid off earlier this year, and the 2006 bond is almost exhausted.
“As we come close to the end of that, it’s time for the community to reflect on whether this is the right thing to do going forward,” said Kier. "I think we'll see that the (open-space bonds) have been incredible assets to Missoula."