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Missoula Valley rancher Bart Morris walks toward the area where Miller Creek runs through the 168-parcel of land he and his wife, Wendy Morris, have put into a conservation easement between Missoula and Lolo. "We honestly feel like we've been given this unbelievable opportunity to conserve this land in perpetuity," says Morris, who runs the Oxbow Cattle Company with his wife.

As Missoula’s population grows, development pressures increase and money for protecting open space dwindles, government officials have scheduled a “multi-faceted public process” to take public comment regarding the future of public lands in the county.

The Missoula Parks and Recreation office and the Missoula County Parks, Trails and Open Lands department are holding a public open house from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 6, at Hellgate Elementary School, 2835 Flynn Lane, Building 3, to gather input from residents about the future of open space in the valley.

It’s part of a collaborative effort to map out the next 10 years of recreational space, including hillsides, riparian areas, agricultural lands, parks, trails and conservation easements.

"The past 20-plus years of open space conservation in Missoula has been wildly successful, due to the commitment of Missoulians who deeply value their open spaces,” said Elizabeth Erickson, the city’s open space acquisitions attorney. “Because of the support of landowners, partner organizations and city and county residents, we’ve made great strides toward realizing our community’s initial goals for conserving open space in Missoula.

"We are now looking ahead to the next decade and want to hear from citizens about their priorities for the future of open space conservation in the greater Missoula area.”

The Missoula Urban Area Open Space Plan was written in 1995 and last updated in 2006. In both of those years, voters approved bond measures to pay for public space. Those funds are now almost gone, but Erickson said this meeting isn’t necessarily about money.

“There have been big changes in our planning region since 2006,” she said. “There have been ecological changes, population growth patterns, development patterns. Considering everything we’ve seen, we are asking the public what else we need to be considering. We want feedback on the vision statement. It’s going to be some broad ground-truthing and gathering information on open space planning in general.”

The City of Missoula maintains over 3,300 acres of open space, or conservation lands, on Mount Jumbo, Mount Sentinel, the North Hills and the Tower Street Conservation Area. The city’s half of the $10 million 2006 bond has roughly $300,000 remaining after several large projects this past year.

“The earlier parks and open space plans have effectively guided the work and efforts of citizen boards, staff and elected officials and were developed through public input from focus groups, open houses, and surveys,” said city Parks and Recreation director Donna Gaukler. “Both previous documents contain essential planning strategies and benchmarks to be integrated into the new plan, which will guide City and County parks and open space programs throughout the next decade.”

Gaukler noted there will be a variety of opportunities for local residents to participate in plan development.

“The open house will be a great opportunity for the public to weigh in on the future of open space in the Missoula Valley, including priorities, values and next steps,” said Kali Becher, a natural resource specialist with Missoula County Parks, Trails and Open Lands.

For those unable to attend, there will be opportunities to share feedback online at missoulaparks.org after the open house. For more information about the planning process, visit missoulaparks.org or missoulacounty.us/parks-trails.

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