When he was running up the record as Missoula’s longest-serving City Council member, Jack Reidy had a regular criticism of the Open Space program: “When will the south side of town get a share of this?”

It was 20 years ago this summer when Reidy helped bring 1,465 acres of Mount Jumbo into public hands. Over the 22 years he spent representing the South Hills and Farviews neighborhoods, Reidy also saw the acquisition of the North Hills, Mount Sentinel and Fort Missoula cornerstone properties. On Saturday, his side of town gets on the map with the Mount Dean Stone project. It’s 1,000 acres bigger than the rest of the city open space lands combined.

But this isn’t a city park like Tower Street Conservation Area or a U.S. Forest Service recreation area like Pattee Canyon. In fact, nobody has a playbook that defines what Mount Dean Stone will become.

“We don’t have an answer about who will finally own this,” said Grant Kier, executive director of Five Valleys Land Trust. “It will be kind of lengthy and messy, because it will take a while to find the right fit. This is a potential model to rethink the way we do open space.”

Here’s the deal: The 4,200-acre parcel covers a ragged triangle running behind the radio towers atop Mount Dean Stone and extending southeast along the curl of the Miller Creek Valley. On the map, it clumps in four checkerboard blocks. Most of the in-between blocks are owned by the state of Montana or the U.S. Forest Service.

The Nature Conservancy acquired that parcel as part of the 310,000-acre Montana Legacy Project with Plum Creek Timber Co. Its mission is to pass on that land to new owners who will protect its conservation values. That has included the Forest Service, state land managers, ranchers and even the City of Missoula. But the Dean Stone lands are different.

“We’re used to having people recreate on our land as it was when it was owned by Plum Creek,” said TNC land protection specialist Chris Bryant. “In the Blackfoot (river valley, site of many Legacy Project lands), we’ve helped create or expand wildlife management areas and places for people to snowmobile, fish, hunt and picnic. We don’t have the capacity to be a facilitator with a lot of user groups. But we have a long partnership with Five Valleys, and that allows us to work at a scale we haven’t in the past.”

FVLT announced it has raised $1 million for a three-year option to buy the land from TNC at its annual banquet on Saturday. The eventual price tag is about $4.5 million. The two organizations intend to leverage their respective networks of donors and affiliated groups to raise the money.

One of those groups is Run Wild Missoula, whose members have already donated $25,000 toward the project and have pledged two more annual $15,000 contributions. Group executive director Tony Banovich said those 1,600 members look forward to a tantalizing expansion of their running territory.

“You’ll have this horseshoe ringing the eastern edge of Missoula,” Banovich said. “You can go from the North Hills to Mount Jumbo to Mount Sentinel, across Pattee Canyon and up Dean Stone to the end of Miller Creek – all of which have some form of public open space. When you think of all the communities in the Rocky Mountain West, that’s an incredible legacy of lands open and available for public use.”

And that’s what makes Dean Stone particularly significant. The public lands of the Lolo National Forest surround the Missoula Valley. But some restrictions apply.

“Especially with our in-town recreation areas that have large amounts of public use, we have to look at those carefully,” said Al Hilshey, recreation manager for the Lolo Forest. “Our management of places like Pattee Canyon and Blue Mountain recreation areas have group size limits. Those are based on what the facilities can accommodate, resource protection needs and potential user conflict.”

And any group that plans commercial activity on Forest Service land, whether it’s an endurance race or a summer camp nature walk, must have a permit or license. That’s been a frustration for many Missoula organizations that depend on the outdoors for field trips, backcountry skills training or long-distance routes.

“Dean Stone will be really exciting for mountain bikers, because there are such limited opportunities for new trail construction in Missoula,” said Eric Melson, local advocacy manager for International Mountain Biking Association. “We understand the Forest Service’s inability to add new miles of trail to the ground when they can hardly handle what they have. We’re sort of the biking juggernaut in Missoula, and we have the ability to go after funds for trail work. And the trails are a benefit to everybody.”

FVLT’s Kier said Dean Stone may eventually pass to traditional public ownership. But in its early stages, he hopes to see a new kind of roundtable management consisting of community clubs, organizations and institutions willing to both build the property’s amenities and steward its natural qualities.

“I’d like to see a space to have conversations that are hard to have in a more regimented, public place,” Kier said. “This is so big, and yet so close to the urban area. We’re focusing on the things that are unique to the wildland-urban interface.”

Just as Missoula’s North Hills lead to the Rattlesnake National Recreation area and then the Rattlesnake Wilderness, Dean Stone Mountain provides a similar steppingstone to the deep backcountry. Thanks to last year’s acquisition of the South Hills Spur between Pattee Canyon Road and Mansion Heights, a dedicated hiker can walk out of the Missoula city limits into the Sapphire Mountains and on to the Welcome Creek Wilderness, Rock Creek drainage and Skalkaho Game Preserve.

“That’s a good deal,” Reidy said shortly before the Dean Stone project was publicly announced. “Having some land on this side of town is a good thing. We have a few parks, but not much open space. I’m glad to see it.”

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