A proposal is on the table for the city to acquire 80 acres of open space along the Clark Fork River

The cottonwood forest and river access oft-longed for by Missoula open space program manager Kate Supplee may soon make it off the city's to-do list and onto the official open space map.

At Monday night's City Council meeting, Supplee will present plans to buy 80 acres of Clark Fork River floodplain and cottonwood forest at the north end of Tower Street with about $250,000 from Missoula's 1995 open space bond.

The property is owned by Larry and Sherry Wilbert of Kalispell, and must still be appraised, Supplee said Friday. Public comment will be taken at Monday's meeting, but council members won't vote until after the appraisal is finished later this month.

"We've been looking for riverfront land since the bond passed," Supplee said. "So much of that property has been developed, this is the first we've been able to get an option on."

It was worth waiting for, she said. "A shining gem of open space," in the words of Open Space Advisory Committee member Glenn Marangelo. "A gorgeous piece of real estate," added committee member Pat Collins.

The Clark Fork River braids - and occasionally floods - the property, which is north of Third Street and west of Reserve. While two houses are on the property, most of the land is a forest of black cottonwoods.

The age of each cottonwood stand coincides with the river's flooding history, said Open Space Committee member Jim Berkey, who wrote a report on the property's vegetation. Seedlings and saplings polka-dot the recent alluvial bars, while pole-size and mature cottonwoods dominate the higher ground.

Also on the property are clumps of ponderosa pine, box elder, willows, serviceberry and snowberry, thin-leafed alder, red-osier dogwood and Douglas fir. There are weeds, Berkey said, but are yet manageable.

"Mature cottonwoods forests, often referred to as cottonwood gallery forests, have become rare in Montana," he said. "Flood control measures such as dams, levees and withdrawals have reduced cottonwood forest numbers greatly."

As riparian land, the Wilbert property will give Missoula's open space system something new, Supplee said. "We've bought hillsides and trails and land for playing fields at Fort Missoula, but this will be our first nice piece of riparian land and river access."

"We needed this," she said. "When Parks and Rec surveyed people in 1998, their top three priorities for future open space lands were protecting wildlife habitat, providing public access to rivers, and acquiring and preserving natural areas. The Wilbert property provides all three."

If purchased, the land will remain "as is" for the immediate future, Supplee said. "We'd put up some signs that give the basic rules common to most city open spaces. We'd prohibit motor vehicle use, building fires, tree cutting and overnight camping.

"And eventually, we would work with the neighborhood and resource specialists to develop a plan that addresses wildlife habitat, hunting (the area has provided some duck hunting and bow hunting in the past), river access, trails and parking."

Missoula still has $900,000 of the $5 million open space bond approved by voters in 1995. The city's option on the Wilbert property expires June 1. For more information, call Supplee at 523-4669 or e-mail her at ksupplee@ci.missoula.mt.us.

Monday's City Council meeting begins at 7 p.m. in City Hall. The Wilbert property purchase is the only public hearing on the agenda.

Reporter Sherry Devlin can be reached at 523-5268 or at sdevlin@missoulian.com.

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