By Martin Kidston/MISSOULA CURRENT
Trevor Stene set a course to the southeast, flying over the Clark Fork River floodplain, the expanse of the Missoula Valley and the greening slopes of the South Hills. Seated in the back, Grant Kier kept an eye on the shifting landscape, watching as it transitioned to broken timber and the rising slopes of Dean Stone Mountain.
Held between the blue sky above and the logging remnants below, Kier pulled out a map and began to name the landmarks; the West Fork of Deer Creek, Bear Run Creek and the peak of Dean Stone Mountain itself.
“The scale of this project is huge,” Kier said, his voice shifting through the headset. “There’s a lot of possibilities down there.”
Kier, the executive director of Five Valleys Land Trust and Chris Bryant, the western Montana lands director for The Nature Conservancy, have come together with an opportunity to secure roughly 2,500 acres of open space on Dean Stone Mountain.
When added to the easements already preserved by Five Valleys, the conservation effort grows to some 4,000 acres. It represents a project larger in scope than the acquisition of Mount Jumbo nearly two decades ago, though pulling it off will require a community effort over the next three years.
The two organizations publicly announced the project on Saturday night during a banquet that raised $163,000.
“The scale of this project is huge, and it’s going to take all of the folks who love trails coming together to make it work,” said Kier. “This is about giving the community the opportunity to get this done. There are new and emerging needs we need to fill through open space.”
For Missoulians encumbered to the valley floor, Dean Stone Mountain marks the city’s southeastern skyline, rising 6,143 feet south of Pattee Canyon. In recent years, development pressure has closed in from multiple sides, with Mansion Heights climbing the South Hills and homes dotting the narrow patch of Miller Creek to the south.
But the agreement between Five Valleys and The Nature Conservancy could forever preserve what remains of the South Hills landscape as open space, including its scenic views and wildlife values. Under the agreement, The Nature Conservancy has granted Five Valleys a three-year option to purchase the land for $1 million – far less than its $1.5 million value.
“Our goal is to see that it’s protected, and Five Valleys needed time to figure the project out and what the long-term vision for this could be,” said Bryant. “We’ve entered into a three-year option with them to purchase this land from us at quite a bargain. It gives them the time to figure out what this whole thing will look like.”
The landscape represents a collection of open grassland and timber of varying densities. Old logging roads cross the landscape and several narrow creeks trickle down the gulches, feeding Pattee Creek to the north and Miller Creek to the south.
Crossing the terrain on foot marks a distance of roughly nine miles, though the plane covers it in minutes. As the landscape moves away from the population base of the Missoula Valley, it becomes increasingly rugged and remote, blending with the Sapphire Mountains to the south.
While the acquisition of Dean Stone Mountain represents a prize to Missoula residents for its recreational opportunities, it also serves as a gem in the effort to preserve a wildlife corridor between the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, which includes the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, and the Bitterroot-Selway Wilderness to the south.
Moose, elk and deer use the corridor crossing out from the Lolo Creek drainage. Mountain carnivores aren’t uncommon. Wolverines and the occasional pronghorn have been documented from time to time, as have bears.
“It’s one of the pathways for wildlife between those two ecosystems,” said Pelah Hoyt, the lands director for Five Valleys. “Wildlife needs to get around Missoula. This acquisition is an important piece of that corridor.”
Missoula serves as a pinch-point between the two ecosystems, and both Five Valleys and The Nature Conservancy have taken steps in recent years to preserve open space and keep the corridors intact.
Over the last two decades, The Nature Conservancy has acquired nearly 310,000 acres of former private timber land through the Montana Legacy Project. The land lies scattered over western Montana and the Crown of the Continent – a massive area encompassing 18 million acres surrounding Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex.
Much of that land has gone back into public ownership, and it represents a remarkable conservation achievement. Because of the effort, Bryant notes, the area remains one of a few places on Earth that has not seen a single animal or plant extinction in the post-industrial age.
The 2,500 acres on Dean Stone Mountain was also acquired by The Nature Conservancy through the Montana Legacy Project. And while the organization looks to the increasingly urbanized fringes of Missoula, so too has Five Valleys focused on the South Hills, where urban development continues to expand its reaches.
Earlier this month, Five Valleys closed a deal on the Barmeyer family property, securing a 130-acre conservation easement in Pattee Canyon. Just west of the Barmeyer easement sits another 90 acres purchased by Five Valleys last year. Known as the South Hills Spur, the organization hopes to sell the property to the city of Missoula, with funding coming from what remains of the 2006 Open Space Bond.
“Because of the Barmeyer project, the city will be able to open a trail head on Pattee Canyon Road, allowing people to cross over Pattee Creek, come through the forest to some prime open grasslands,” said Hoyt. “A generous donor has also granted access to the South Hills Spur, so there will be a trail system that will connect those two pieces. The recreational opportunities are wonderful.”
Back in 2007, Five Valleys also acquired four connected easements above the South Hills. When combined with the Barmeyer addition and the South Hills Spur, it protects nearly 1,200 acres as open space. With the addition of 2,200 acres offered by the Nature Conservancy on Dean Stone Mountain, much of the city’s southern flank would be preserved in perpetuity.
“That has really catalyzed a lot of interest among recreational users and other groups to really anchor the South Hills with a significant open-lands project,” Bryant said. “It’s a big piece of land in an increasingly urbanized area.”
Circling above Dean Stone Mountain, the Missoula Valley stretches as a plane carved by streets and subdivisions, shopping centers and industry. Seen from above, the development subsides where the mountains meet the valley.
Bryant notes the location of Dean Stone Mountain on a map and how it bridges the South Hills and Upper Miller Creek. While the north end of Missoula is guarded by the Rattlesnake Wilderness – and while Mount Jumbo and Mount Sentinel stand watch to the east – the valley’s southern rim remains vulnerable, though the acquisition would change that.
“When this was seen as timber land generations ago, Missoula was small – a different kind of town,” Bryant said. “The significant value of this land is as open space, wildlife habitat and recreation. As a connectivity piece, you can’t just look at the 2,500 acres. Rather, you have to view the 2,500 acres in context with everything around it. This is relatively open country all the way down to the Sapphires. All those small pieces add up together.”
With the agreement announced, Kier said Five Valleys will reach out to community groups to begin planning and fundraising. Run Wild Missoula has already agreed to donate $25,000 to the project – the largest donation the group has ever made.
Kier estimates the entire project will cost around $4 million to complete.
“Until we know what the use and ownership looks like, it doesn’t make sense to figure out what the funding looks like,” Kier said. “We need to figure out who is the right entity to own this over time, and what kind of uses will be needed and desired.”