Plan looks to manage open space in South Hills

Hikers stand on a knoll in the newly acquired South Hills Spur and take in the views of the Missoula Valley. The city has released a draft management plan for city park and is looking for public comment. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

Open space advocates celebrated the city’s purchase of the South Hills Spur last year, hailing the acquisition as a welcome addition to Missoula’s ring of scenic views and native ecosystems.

Now, it’s time to implement a plan to manage the 174-acre parcel, and Missoula Parks and Recreation is looking for public feedback.

The department this month released a draft of its South Hills Spur Recreation Management Plan, a document that looks at naming rights, preservation of fragile habitats, trail building and signage.

Public comments will be accepted through April 2.

“The plan outlines some of the history and existing conditions for the park, the reason for the donation by the family and the partnerships that have formed,” said director Donna Gaukler. “It includes a detailed assessment of the vegetation and wildlife. All those things inform where we want to steer user groups, primarily hikers and bikers, so we maximize use of the property for all its vales.”

The South Hills Spur encompasses 174 acres between Pattee Canyon and the South Hills, and it offers unfettered views of the Missoula Valley from a sweeping grassy knoll.

Five Valleys Land Trust had acquired a portion of the property last year and gave the city the option to buy it for roughly half of its $1.2 million value. In approving the purchase, the city agreed to expend up to $575,000 from its portion of the 2006 Open Space Bond.

The new acquisition could be added to other parcels in the area as part of a larger effort to preserve what advocates are calling the Mount Dean Stone Project, which could someday encompass roughly 4,000 acres.

Gaukler said the new plan implements lessons learned from the city’s other parcels of open space, including Mount Jumbo and the North Hills.

“To be able to look at the whole system as a larger ecosystem is a positive thing,” she said. “To think about people as part of that larger ecosystem is a wonderful opportunity to understand how valuable this land is and what it means to us.”

The plan suggests naming the parcel’s two proposed trailheads after the families that were instrumental in making the acquisition possible. That includes the Barmeyer Family, which made the donation that helped launch the project, and Mike Sosa, who pulled his property from future development and sold it below the appraised value.

From the two trailheads, the plan proposes roughly 3.4 miles of trail. One mile currently exists, though it will require significant improvements. A portion of the current trail will be closed and restored by covering the ground with slash and planting native seed to help with regeneration.

“Building trails tends to be way easier than closing roads and trails and rehabilitating areas that need to be put back into vegetation,” said Gaukler. “While there’s some physical labor, it’s much easier to find the volunteers or labor force than it is to close a trail. A lot of people like to build a trail, but to reclaim it takes a while and it’s not so easy.”

Initial costs and weed management of the property are funded in part by Open Space Bond funds. Implementing the large plan, including trails, signage and site restoration, will be funded by the city’s Conservation Lands Management Program and its annual operating budget.

“Some of the initial work to open the parcel for public use is covered by the Open Space Bond,” Gaukler said. “It’ll be a couple years using our operating budget to get the rest of the work done.”

Gaukler added that the timeline for public use will be contingent on feedback on the management plan.

“Our goal is to try and get a lot of the work done this summer in phase one,” she said. “We’ll see what the public comment is. We anticipate it will be generally positive and supportive, because the study is based in science.”