Missoula city, county secure conservation easement along Bitterroot River

“We are very grateful,” said club president June Lederer. “We don’t know if the club will be around 50 years from now, but we want to make sure this land is around.” (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Meeting jointly, the Missoula City Council and Missoula County commissioners unanimously agreed Monday to spend $12,000 of open space bond funds to secure a 50-acre conservation easement along the Bitterroot River in lower Miller Creek.

The Western Montana Retriever Club is donating the easement itself; bond monies will pay the transactional costs. The easement prohibits most future development on the property.

The acreage is a treasure of wetlands and river bottom habitat increasingly scarce as Missoula develops its empty spaces, advocates testified during the nighttime public hearing. It also has scenic value for floaters who pass the property on the river.

Bert Lindler delivered the endorsement of Missoula’s Open Space Advisory Committee.

In their recommendation, members of the advisory group described the acreage’s attributes this way:

“The Western Montana Retriever Club property contains riparian cottonwood forest, emergent wetlands, and numerous ponds and sloughs. These areas provide habitat for a number of species, including two rare plants: toothcup (Rotala ramosior) and Columbia water-meal (Wolffia columbiana).

“The property is also home to a variety of nesting and migratory birds and mammal species. An old river oxbow on the south and east sides fills with water every spring and develops considerable aquatic vegetation including bull rushes. This provides hiding cover that allows some water birds to nest.

“Bird species that can be found utilizing the wetlands include osprey, sora rail, Wilson’s snipe, spotted sandpiper, great blue heron, mallard, gadwall, cinnamon and blue-winged teal, hooded merganser, Canada goose, marsh wren, common yellowthroat and several species of swallows. A portion of the property also contains old-growth cottonwoods, which are home to a number of cavity-nesting birds.”

Jim Brown of Five Valleys Audubon Society added his group’s approval, urging commissioners and council members to consider not only the thousands of individual assets on the property but also the big picture of conserving increasingly precious river bottom land.

Seven acres on the property already were protected with a conservation easement. Then the retriever club agreed to donate an easement on the other 43 acres, bringing the preservation to 50 acres and a half-mile of river frontage.

City Councilman Bryan von Lossberg hailed the club for its generosity in making such a significant donation. The open space bond monies will only be needed for transactional and maintenance activities.

Club president June Lederer, in turn, thanked the city and Five Valleys Land Trust for making the easement happen through their support. The land trust put the deal together, and will take responsibility for watching over the conservation easement.

“We are very grateful,” she said. “We don’t know if the club will be around 50 years from now, but we want to make sure this land is around.”

The only real sticking point Monday was the lack of meaningful public access to the property.

At present, only members of the retriever club have access to the property, which they use for training. That isn’t expected to change in the near future, although school groups and others are given access for field trips.

“I’m starting to have second thoughts because of the public access,” said Councilman Jon Wilkins. “If we could put a trail in there.”

Although he ultimately voted to approve the purchase, Wilkins urged the club to look for ways to allow public access in some areas.

However, Councilwoman Michelle Cares reminded council members that public access isn’t the only purpose of Missoula’s open lands.

In fact, Missoula’s open space plan “prioritizes protection of conservation lands, which exist in a natural state or have been reclaimed to approximate a natural state, support flora and fauna and their habitat, and may serve as significant areas of floodwater storage and aquifer recharge,” according to the resolution approved Monday by separate unanimous resolutions of the commissioners and City Council.

“We need a balance between public access and lack thereof,” Cares said. “I will support this easement wholeheartedly.”