In 2007, Missoula County spent $350,000 on a conservation project in Greenough. That money directly secured a 3,440-acre easement on private ranchland. Indirectly, however, the investment accomplished much more. Via the larger Blackfoot Community Project, the easement was used to leverage protection for another 14,500 acres of adjacent land, much of which is now publicly accessible through the state’s block management program.
“The result was incredible,” says Pat O’Herren, chief planning officer for Missoula County. “Not just protection of the ranch area itself, but leveraging money to put an easement on thousands of acres surrounding the ranch that does have block management, that the public does have access to.”
The county’s share for those protections came from the 2006 Open Space Bond, a $10 million pot of conservation funding approved by nearly 70 percent of county voters. As of this month, only $640,000 of that bond is left, half earmarked for projects within Missoula’s urban core, and half for projects elsewhere in the county. Which is why, on July 9, Missoula County commissioners agreed to put a new $15 million ask on the ballot. Come Nov. 6, the question will again fall to voters: What is open space worth?
Missoula has executed 49 open space projects in the 12 years since the first open space bond passed. The size and scope have varied widely, from the expansive Sunset Hill project in Greenough to a 35-acre conservation easement north of Seeley Lake, for which the county allocated $14,697 of bond funding to cover transaction costs. Each funding application was vetted by a citizen advisory committee and ultimately hinged on approval from the county commission.
O’Herren largely chalks up the success of those projects to the private landowners, organizations and state and federal agencies that partnered to make them happen, including Five Valleys Land Trust and the Vital Ground Foundation. The involvement of those entities has made additional funding available from numerous sources including the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the federal Agricultural Land Easements program, nonprofit contributions and private in-kind donations, to name a few. County natural resource specialist Kali Becher says every bond dollar spent has been matched, on average, by $4.60 from other sources.
“Many of these are not just a single-focus project,” Becher adds, listing a host of bond criteria such as water quality, ag land conservation and protection of riparian areas and wildlife corridors. “That’s why they’ve brought together a variety of funding sources and partners.”
Missoula County Parks and Trails Program Manager Lisa Moisey describes the open space bond as a “catalyst for partnerships.” Take the county’s involvement in the 2012 expansion of Travelers’ Rest State Park. In cooperation with Five Valleys Land Trust, Missoula helped secure an additional 24 acres of parkland in Lolo. The total cost of the project was just over $1 million; the county’s share was $300,000.
“The addition of that land allowed for significant increases in the trails on that property, which help connectivity,” Moisey says. “Not only trails that serve the visitors and the guests, but it also helps connectivity in the Lolo community.”
Missoula County isn’t alone in asking voters for conservation money this fall. City Council this week approved a $500,000 annual mill levy for the ballot to fund stewardship of its own existing open space acquisitions. Voters have twice approved city open space bonds, in 1980 and 1995, with the money going toward acquisitions on Mount Sentinel, Mount Jumbo, the North Hills and the soon-to-open Montana Rail Link Park, which will finally connect central Missoula to the Bitterroot Trail. Additional projects backed by the city’s $5 million share of the 2006 county bond, like the recently opened Barmeyer Trail off Pattee Canyon Drive, require maintenance that isn’t covered by the bond. Open Space Acquisitions Attorney Elizabeth Erickson says the annual cost to maintain those areas is $141 per acre.
“Those two efforts together will provide an incredible opportunity to not just continue to acquire land, but take care of what we have,” she says of the 2018 levy and bond requests.
Voters’ stakes in these decisions are hardly negligible. The city estimates that its stewardship levy, if passed, would increase property taxes on a home valued at $200,000 by $10.80 per year. In the case of the county bond, the increase would be $13.46 per year.
Written by: Alex Sakariassen
Staff Reporter at Missoula Independent