Open Space

Hikers walk the trails on Waterworks Hill, one of Missoula's open space lands, in February 2018.

Missoulians are passionate about the places they hike, bike and throw Frisbees for their dogs, as was evident on Tuesday night when roughly 80 people showed up for a public open house to discuss how the city and county plan for open space recreational areas in the future.

“It was a great turnout,” said Kali Becher, the natural resource specialist for the county’s Parks, Trails and Open Lands program. “We asked a variety of questions having to do with changing trends and emerging conditions. We’re getting feedback on our open space vision, kind of the broad values they found important.”

City and county officials had the public fill out questionnaires, the results of which will be tabulated in the coming weeks.

Elizabeth Erickson, the city’s open space acquisitions attorney, said that the city and county are collaborating on a new master Parks, Recreation, Open Space and Trails (PROST) plan for the greater Missoula Valley. It will serve as a blueprint for the next 10 years and will replace the previous plans that were developed in 1995, 2004 and 2006.

“The goal of the open house was to get input from the community on a range of components of the open space plan, including the geographical priorities for the plan,” she said. “A lot of things have changed in Missoula over the last 12 years.”

The goal is to get a “wide swath” of the community involved. In fact, the questionnaire will be posted online at a specially dedicated website for the plan at missoulaparks.org/2309/PROST-Plan.

“What we are trying to suss out through this process in terms of additional protections is what additional work we need to do within our existing cornerstones,” Erickson explained. “We are continuing working on smaller connections like trail systems and more buffer areas and developed park lands closer to residential development."

She said the idea is to not create isolated islands of open space.

"Our goal is connecting those with corridors to anchor areas, as we’re calling them, to make everything more cohesive," she said. "Residents should be able to hop on a trail in really any of our neighborhoods and eventually get on to city open space.”

At 2 p.m. Thursday in the County Courthouse annex meeting room, the County Commissioners will discuss using money from the $10 million, voter-approved 2006 Open Space bond, which was split equally between the city and the county, to help place a conservation easement on 569 acres in the Potomac area.

Currently a ranch owned by Anna Marie Hayes, the land would cost about $295,000 of the remaining $600,000 in the County’s portion of the bond fund.

“This project would conserve working lands as well as wildlife habitat and open space,” Becher said. “There is a small wetland area in the lower portions of the ranch. It’s currently undeveloped land and contains a lot of agricultural land and valuable timber land.”

The easement is being coordinated by the Five Valleys Land Trust in Missoula.

Erickson said there isn’t yet a focus on a particular geographic area to conserve around Missoula.

“Open space conservation is inherently opportunistic,” she said. “It happens when lands become available. Our tools are voluntary, so it’s working with landowners who want to sell land. Opportunities arise unexpectedly sometimes."

All different types of topography have to be evaluated when considering what is appropriate.

"Our riparian corridors have always been a component of the open space plan and have always been a priority," she said. "Those movement corridors for wildlife, absolutely as development continues in urban areas, will see more pressure. The tributaries for the Clark Fork and Bitterroot and the main river corridors are seeing additional pressures from development and other uses.”

Since 1986, roughly 30,000 acres of farm and ranch land in Missoula County have been converted to subdivisions or other nonagricultural uses, according to the County’s Community and Planning Services office.

In early 2016, the Missoula County Commissioners went against the recommendations of both the planning board and their own CAPS staff and struck down proposed regulations that would have required landowners and developers to choose a set of options to mitigate the loss of ag land if they converted high-quality soils into developments. The commissioners at the time, including both current commissioners Cola Rowley and Jean Curtiss, said they preferred voluntary conservation like what is happening with the Hayes ranch.

As development pressure increases along with housing prices in the county, however, the desire for open space will have to compete with other community goals.

“Open space is something our community values deeply,” Erickson said. “It’s part of what makes Missoula Missoula.”

“I think that was definitely one of the takeaways from the public open house is that it’s clear that Missoulians who live here are very interested in open space,” Becher added. “They really want to participate in the process of looking at the next 10 years in the planning process.”

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