Conservationists seek ways to preserve greenbelt west of Missoula
Out where the sun sets on Missoula, cows bellow their goodnights and swallows snap insects out of the air above some of the last undeveloped agricultural and riparian land in the valley.
"It would be a shame if we didn't preserve this place - if we let it all become houses," says Jim Brown. "If you look ahead 100 years, you can imagine how this town will grow. This could really be a valuable resource for the community."
So Brown, an avid birder, conservationist and retired fire scientist, set out a year or so ago to find a way to preserve - and possibly restore - about 800 acres of wetlands, meadows and pasture west of Missoula.
Locals call the area "Grass Valley," for the native rye grass that covered the ancient floodplain when white settlers arrived with their cows and plows. Brown calls it a "wildlife supermarket," for the diversity of bird, insect and animal life supported by an artesian spring that meanders across the flats.
"Outside of the Clark Fork River itself, this is probably the most valuable place in the Missoula Valley for riparian habitat," he said. "It's fairly flat, so you get quiet water in the ponds, as well as moving water in the sloughs. And the water supply is year-round."
A member of Five Valleys Audubon Society, Brown easily found allies among birders. At Five Valleys Land Trust, he found expertise in land conservation and enthusiasm for his cause. Five Valleys, in fact, was already at work in the area.
"Wouldn't it be nice if, rather than continuing to sprawl all the way out to Frenchtown, we had a greenbelt that defined the western edge of Missoula?" said Jim Berkey, the land trust's stewardship and land protection coordinator. "Wouldn't it be nice to have that vision?"
Still in the early stages of talking with landowners, Brown and Berkey aren't yet ready to talk about specifics. But they emphasize that they'd like the land to remain in private ownership and agricultural production.
The goal, Berkey said, is to protect the ground with conservation easements that allow farming and ranching, but preclude subdivisions. Landowners would remain on the land, and would be compensated for their lost development rights.
"About 85 percent of the Missoula basin's prime farmland soils already have houses sitting on top of them," Berkey said. "If we are interested in preserving any portion of our remaining prime farmland, this would be a good place."
Three or four landowners control most of the wetland-farmland acreage in Grass Valley. Generally, the area is bounded by Mullan Road on the south and the railroad tracks on the north, from the eastern edge of the old Clark Fork floodplain to the airport.
Deschamps Lane divides the area almost evenly in half.
From the clay hills above, Berkey looked across the bottom land and cataloged its riches. "The stringers of trees define the gulches: Grant Creek, then Butler Creek, then LaValle Creek. All the flat agricultural land is an old flood zone. Where this hummocky ground meets the flats, the artesian springs commence."
LaValle Creek seems to disappear as it comes overland, but it actually resurfaces as an artesian spring that gives Grass Valley its unusual wetland values. Cattails and sedge grasses show the water's course across the farmland, providing food and nesting ground for water-loving birds, insects and mammals.
In Missoula's early days, duck hunters and ranchers got sideways with each other - so plentiful were the waterfowl, but so skittish the cows, during hunting season.
For a time, between 1925 and 1954, the Montana Fish and Game Commission declared all hunting, fishing and trapping off limits in the Grass Valley Shooting Preserve. Then hunters convinced the commission to repeal the ban, and private landowners could again allow - if they so chose - hunting.
There are tales of swans and clouds of ducks on the water and in the air above Grass Valley, Brown said. He finds surprises on nearly every visit: a Virginia rail singing from somewhere deep inside the cattails, a western kingbird on a telephone wire, a family of foxes.
"One afternoon this spring, I saw snow geese resting on one of the ponds," Brown said. "Wilson's snipes nest in the area. And there are quite a few species of ducks, 14 or 15 of them. Gadwall, mallard, cinnamon teal, blue-wing teal, shovelers. The puddle ducks, particularly, are nesters in here."
It would not be enough to preserve the cattail patch alone, he said. If you build houses to the edge of the wetland, you won't have the birds that like a little more solitude. And you'd lose the corridor through which birds and mammals move between the mountains to the north and south.
"These corridors give wildlife the comfort to exist here," said Brown.
Humans need the open spaces, too, he said. "I think in the long term, larger communities are enriched if you have open spaces within - inside - the community. This land could fill those values as well."
Grass Valley's wetlands have already been diminished by surrounding development and land uses. The sloughs and ponds are shallower, having filled with silt washed off the subdivided uplands and grazed bottom country. The waterfowl aren't nearly so numerous. The traffic on Deschamps Lane has increased tenfold in recent years.
Unless the land is protected with conservation easements or public purchase, it will eventually be built upon, Berkey said. There are, of course, limits on development within floodplains, but subdivision is inevitable.
"The sewer line is coming out this way," he said, "and if you talk with a lot of the property owners in this area, that's what's on their charts. The sewer really kind of ups the ante. I have talked with some folks who essentially told me they weren't interested in conservation. They were waiting for the sewer so they could get more per acre for their place."
But there is money, energy and expertise available to pay landowners - fairly - to keep the acreage undeveloped, said Berkey. And there is money, nationally and statewide, for wetland restoration.
"As soon as we have the go-ahead from landowners, we will start applying for the grants we need to make this happen," he said.
"To lose this land to houses would be such a terrible loss," said Brown. "For us, and for our wild friends."
Reporter Sherry Devlin can be reached at 523-5268 or email@example.com.