'Now we have the mountain.'

Mount Sentinel is ours.

The city of Missoula bought 474 acres on the face of Mount Sentinel on Tuesday, securing the steep-pitched hillside as a distinct and undeveloped eastern boundary.

"When we see these hills, coming in by air or on the highway, looking up from our morning coffee, we remember who we are," said Mayor Mike Kadas. "We stop as a city at this boundary."

In a deal brokered by Five Valleys Land Trust, the city paid $175,000 for property owned by the children of Walter and Evelyn Cox - and including all of Mount Sentinel from just south of the "M" to the ridgeline and around the corner into Pattee Canyon.

"Around the world, all the great cities have distinct and defined boundaries," Kadas told several dozen city leaders and conservationists at a noontime celebration. "We know these places. They are a part of us."

Kadas and others thanked the Cox family for giving the land trust time to put the hillside into public ownership - and Missoula voters for passing a $5 million open space bond issue in November 1995. (Following Tuesday's purchase, $900,000 remained in the open space account.)

"This is such a fine example of cooperation between private landowners, government and a conservation organization," said Chuck Tribe, a member of the land trust's board. "We need to protect these important landscapes that help to define our community."

"Now the bookends of historic Hellgate Canyon are preserved," said Tribe, who also helped coordinate the campaign to make public 1,465 acres on Mount Jumbo - the remainder of Missoula's eastern boundary.

The acreage on Mount Sentinel was protected from most development by a conservation easement purchased by the city in 1981, with $151,016 from an open space bond issue approved by voters a year earlier. But there was no guarantee of public access, and the easement still allowed construction of four houses on the lower mountain.

With public ownership comes the guarantee of access, said Kate Supplee, Missoula's open space program manager. Hikers can reach the acreage by way of a gate across from the intersection of Agnes and Higgins avenues, then by following the path around the edge of the University of Montana Golf Course and up the hill.

Another public access is located in Pattee Canyon near Montana Power Co.'s natural gas substation. A new trail will be constructed later this month, from the end of Maurice Avenue along the eastern edge of the golf course and onto the mountain.

At Tuesday's celebration, Tom Cox said his family couldn't imagine developing the land their parents bought in 1958. But none of the children - Tom, Douglas or Diana - lives in Missoula any longer. And the upkeep became too much.

Public ownership is the best possible outcome, said Tom Cox, who lives in Carbondale, Ill. "As kids, we used to go up on the mountain and camp and watch deer. The grouse would come down in the yard. It was a wonderful place - and still is."

Five Valleys now will turn its attention to another 476 acres owned by the Coxes farther east on Mount Sentinel, within Pattee Canyon. The land trust's option to that property expires on Dec. 31.

Wendy Ninteman, the trust's executive director, said she wants to find a "private conservation-minded buyer" for the property, one who might be willing to put a conservation easement on the land and limit development to one or two homes. The Pattee Canyon acreage is unzoned, but could be subdivided and developed.

Ninteman said the city's purchase ties into a larger land conservation project coordinated by Five Valleys in Pattee Canyon. The land trust holds four conservation easements limiting development on 239 acres in the canyon and is working with other landowners to do the same.

And the city, Kadas said, will turn its attention to Mount Sentinel's management.

"We need to take care of this mountain," the mayor said. "Management will involve controversy, no doubt. We can never make everyone happy.

"But now we have the mountain - our boundary. It is ours."

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