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Roundtable discusses historical sites in Missoula

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Rocky Mountain Gardens & Exploration Center rendering

An architectural rendering of what the new Rocky Mountain Gardens will look like.

Missoula County recently hosted a heritage roundtable about historically and culturally important places in the area.

Representatives from the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, as well as Missoula County, the Forest Service and other local agencies were in attendance. They discussed the Rocky Mountain Gardens and Exploration Center, the National Museum of Forest Service History, LaLonde Ranch and Beartracks Bridge.

Missoula County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier hosted the forum. The group originally met several years ago and the roundtable group has continued since that point, meeting approximately twice per year.

"Up until that point in time and even right now, there really is no forum for those with an interest in heritage, historic preservation, historic resources to join together and compare notes," Strohmaier said on Dec. 15. "It's mainly an informal forum for us to come together periodically and share what we have been up to, what we're observing in the community and opportunities for us to collaborate together."

Rocky Mountain Gardens is a partnership between the Missoula Butterfly House and Insectarium, the Missoula County Weed District, the Missoula Conservation District and Health Acres Healthy Communities Foundation. Construction on the project, which includes 29,000 square feet of indoor space, broke ground over the summer.

So far, the project has upgraded the commercial and culinary buildings at the county fairgrounds. A new maintenance facility is also under construction. Over the winter, planning progressed for what the gardens at the site, which may be up to 2.5 acres, will include.

The new facility is expected to be open in March of 2023.

"I want programs working with kids, but also (those who are) handicapped," said Jerry Marks, who heads up the county's weed district department. "We will have an outdoor classroom and we will also have a greenhouse to raise stuff for the garden area as well as to teach people using the greenhouse."

A capital campaign for a new conservation center at the U.S. Forest Service History Museum is nearing completion, Lisa Tate, executive director at the museum, told the assembled group.

The campaign sought to raise $10.5 million for the project and around 85% of that has been met, Tate said. The U.S. Forest Service does not fund the museum.

The site, which is around 31 acres, currently includes a visitors center, an interpretive trail and an amphitheater. Future amenities include a live animal barn, a playhouse, and an old aerial tanker they plan to display on the site, courtesy of Neptune Aviation.

Fundraising is expected to be completed next year and construction may start in 2023, though Tate said if it is completed earlier that building could begin sooner. The project was conceived nearly 12 years ago.

The new building will include meeting spaces, displays for art and artifacts, and a gift shop, restrooms and other facilities.

"We've made a lot of progress in the last couple years," Tate said. "There was a time when people used to say 'if' this project ever happened and now it's just a 'when' and we're really excited to be able to bring this to Missoula. This will be a world-class facility right in our backyard."

A project to preserve historic buildings at the LaLonde Ranch off Interstate 90 continues to slowly move forward, said Chet Crowser, director of Missoula County's Community and Planning Services.

The site is approximately 6.8 acres and is county-owned. It includes a two-story brick ranch house, two wood barns and a log cabin that is believed to be around 150 years old.

The project aims to celebrate the Missoula Valley's agricultural history, which includes the thousands of years that the Salish and Kalispel people called this area home, Crowser said.

"We're going to continue to move forward (with) pursing Historic Register nomination," Crowser said. "We've worked with the city, I think there's going to be a collaborative effort there to move that forward. We continue to look at exploration of potential partners and uses."

Renovations of Beartracks Bridge on Higgins Street are expected to be completed in July, with a dedication ceremony planned for the 16th of that month.

The Beartracks name was chosen by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. It will honor Lk͏ʷut Smx̣e (which translates to Far Away Grizzly), a respected leader in Salish history. His Christian name was Louis Vanderberg.

In October 1891, the U.S. government forced Indigenous people in the Bitterroot Valley onto the Flathead Reservation. One of the crossing points during that removal was near where Higgins Avenue bridges the Clark Fork River today.

When July 16 comes, it will be a deeply meaningful ceremony.

"Place names mean a lot, it means life, it means people, it means history, it means stories," Séliš-Ql̓ispé Culture Committee Director Tony Incashola said. "And through this process, you look at and study the place names, they themselves have a whole bundle of information in history.

"Most places, in the Salish-Kalispel people's way, are given either through an event, through people, through stories or through our creation stories."

Jordan Hansen covers news and local government for the Missoulian. Shout at him on Twitter @jordyhansen or send him an email at

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