Case Study: South Hills Easements

South Hills.  Photo by Kip Sikora.

The South Hills rise above the mouth of Pattee Canyon and grace the southeast corner of the Missoula Valley with gradually rising expanses of open grasslands that steepen to timbered slopes dominated by the summit of Mount Dean Stone, and wrapping all the way around to Miller Creek on the south.

Like much of the land in the urban-­‐wild interface, the land in the South Hills serves as an important buffer zone that reduces human-­‐wildlife conflict. In addition, the scenic backdrop for the growing community of Missoula relies upon the sense of openness that derives from grassy expanses of traditional agricultural lands.

Beginning in the 1950’s Missoula’s expanding population sought the higher ground of open hillsides for residential development and the South Hills provided prime locations for homes that would have great views of the valley and the nearby mountains. Slowly, residential development began to creep up those slopes, eventually swallowing up much of the open grassland that once surrounded the City of Missoula.

Meanwhile, for decades, the people of Missoula made steady progress toward protecting land in all of our high priority areas—except the South Hills Open Space Cornerstone. That changed in 2007 thanks to the generosity of three long-­‐time landowners—the Hayden family, the Line family, and the Rimel family.

Those three neighborhood landowner families had owned and cared for the forest and grazing land through decades, providing exemplary stewardship and a tradition of true conservation-­‐based land management. Those families had also been getting together for many years to share the neighborly efforts that are part and parcel of living in rural Montana, even if these folks also lived within easy access of downtown Missoula. In addition to working together, the families had gathered occasionally in recent years to discuss their collective vision and the possibility of a conservation outcome for their family lands that dominated the remaining open spaces in the South Hills.

The lynchpin for turning those discussions into action turned out be the Hayden family’s donation of a conservation easement on 425 acres linking the edge of the residential subdivisions of the valley floor with the forested public lands near the top of Dean Stone. That generous donation led directly to decisions on the part of the adjacent landowners, the Line family and the Rimel family, to place their lands, another 626 acres, under easement. That was made possible through a bargain sale transaction in which City of Missoula Open Space Bond funding was used to compensate both families for a portion of the easement value on their properties.

Now, and in perpetuity, that contiguous block of more than 1,000 acres of gently sloping grasslands and forests will serve as an important buffer between the urban fringe and the wildlife habitat and open lands beyond, as well as securing an unfettered scenic view by people from throughout the Missoula Valley.

This conservation success brought together the neighbors and our community, as evident from several letters to the editors of local papers, many others giving personal thanks to the landowners, the Missoula City Council and County Commissioners unanimously supporting the project, and even a message applauding this effort published in the New York Times.

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