South Hills Spur eyed as next step in Missoula’s open space efforts

Conservation
Kali Becher, left, and Elizabeth Erickson brief Missoula County commissioners on the South Hills Spur, a potential open space acquisition in the South Hills of Missoula. (Photo by Martin Kidston)

By Martin Kidston

A proposal working its way through local government could soon protect a scenic South Hills vista as open space and wildlife habitat, so long as Missoula city and county leaders approve the $575,000 acquisition.

The so-called South Hills Spur moved one step closer to receiving that approval on Wednesday after Missoula County commissioners qualified the project for potential funding.

“This effort represents a partnership with the Five Valleys Land Trust,” said Elizabeth Erickson, the city’s open lands manager. “They acquired the South Hills Spur property in a couple different transactions. They’re proposing to sell the majority of the acquired property to the city for open space conservation.”

A presentation to the City Council’s Parks and Conservation Committee is schedule for September, followed by a final decision in October during a joint meeting of the City Council and the Board of County Commissioners.

The 83-acre parcel covers an area just above Mansion Heights in the South Hills, where new houses are quickly moving up the grassland bench.

While the South Hills Spur was initially slated for development, the latest effort could preserve it as open space, mirroring the scenic North Hills landscape across the valley.

“This whole South Hills area provides this wildlife corridor moving north to the Crown of the Continent and south to the Sellway-Bitterroot complex,” said Erickson. “I like to think of our projects as being situated in this much broader context of connectivity in the region.”

The South Hills Spur could add to a larger effort to conserve some 4,000 acres in the southeast corner of the Missoula Valley. Earlier this year, Five Valleys closed a deal on the Barmeyer family property – a 130-acre conservation easement situated above Pattee Canyon.

The South Hills Spur sits just west of the Barmeyer acquisition, and both guard the flanks of Dean Stone Mountain. That 2,500 property is also being eyed as a hopeful acquisition.

Earlier this year, the Nature Conservancy granted Five Valley’s a three-year option to purchase the Dean Stone property for $1 million. When added together, the parcels – including the South Hills Spur – represent a project larger in scope than the acquisition of Mount Jumbo nearly 20 years ago.

Dean Stone Crop
The South Hills Spur sits to the left of the Mansion Heights subdivision, pictured in this file photo. (Photo by Martin Kidston)

“In Missoula, we have an urban area that’s buffered by city open-space land, and state and Forest Service land,” said Erickson. “Off in the distance, we have these wilderness complexes. The South Hills also connect up to the Sapphire Crest. I like to think of this whole valley as the crossroads for a bunch of important wildlife corridor connections.”

Erickson said the South Hills acquisition meets the requirements included in the 2006 Missoula Urban Open Space Plan, including the preservation of habitat, scenic landscapes, recreation, and managing for growth.

“This is the next step in the vision for the South Hills,” said Erickson. “There will be additional trail connectivity, the protection of grasslands, forest habitat and wildlife habitat, and the protection of a very important open-space vista.”

Commissioners unanimously qualified the project for funding consideration.

The South Hills Spur project will be presented to the City Council’s Parks and Conservation Committee on September 14th. It will then advance to a full hearing before the City Council and Board of County Commissioners on October 3rd.

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com