On Thursday, January 20th, 1972, a small, nondescript classified ad ran in the Missoulian newspaper:
“Park Proposal Discussion Set. A public meeting designed to gather suggestions for development of the Five Valleys River Parks System will be at 7 p.m. Thursday. The meeting will be in the Ventur Center, formerly the Geology building, on the University of Montana campus.”
Although tucked away on page eight, twenty people attended that first meeting. They were from all walks of life: UM professors, a homemaker, a UM student, two future mayors of Missoula, a grounds crew foreman, several business professionals, and two USFS landscape architects including Gerald Coutant, who placed the ad. Before the night was over, they would form the Five Valleys River Park Association.
It’s no wonder that this founding members would embody the story that’s been repeated again and again in Five Valleys’ history: a group of people united around common idea, who, through determination and creativity, accomplish a truly incredible feat – conserving land in perpetuity.
Ellen and Robert Knight attended that first meeting. Ellen reflected on the experience this way, “Seeing that little, tiny article and going to meet all those wonderful people. And look what it has grown into.”
The young organization had its work cut out for it, however. As Greg Tollefson, former Five Valleys’ Executive Director wrote while compiling a history of Five Valleys,
“In the early 1970s, much of the Clark Fork River flowing through Missoula was little more than a corridor of industrial waste. Warehouses, sawmills, slaughterhouses, gravel pits, and a sewage treatment plant, lined the rip-rapped streambanks through town. Little in the way of remaining riparian vegetation and the wildlife that comes with it could be found along the river. No developed pedestrian trails existed along the Clark Fork.”
Yet, a movement was stirring and the FVRPA was at the forefront. In 1970, the National Environmental Policy Act was passed. Closer to home, the 1972 Montana Constitutional Convention was drafting words that still make Montana’s constitution unique: “The state and each person shall maintain and improve a clean and healthful environment in Montana for present and future generations.”
Over the weeks that followed, the FVRPA moved quickly to establish itself and its goals and to educate and inspire the public. In an early presentation a FVRPA document read: “The river park system contemplated will take many years to develop, perhaps becoming a continuing project capable of linking generations in gracious civic enterprise."
The original Board of Directors included Robert Knight, John Toole, Robert Neville, Jerry Coutant, George Turman, Chris Fields, George Brabb, Jean Robbins, Audra Browman, William Cardon, Louie Nordbye, Arnold Bolle, Randy Jacobs, and Mark Hubbell. The FVRPA first resided in the basement of Missoula’s City Hall before moving to Robert Knight’s law office. The first success came just a few months later in the form of a $100 America the Beautiful Fund grant.
In 1973, the FVRPA completed its first project. Randy Jacobs, FVRPA Board member and President of First National Bank (now First Interstate Bank), engineered that the bank would buy the Van Buren Street Island, near the UM Campus. The bank then donated the land to FVRPA who used the project to secure Bureau of Outdoor Recreation funds to help develop the island into a park. Once complete, the land was transferred to the City of Missoula and was renamed Jacobs Island in honor of the Jacobs family. Today, it is a much-used open space and dog park. Five Valleys’ strong partnership with First Interstate Bank continues to this day.
Over the next few years, the FVRPA facilitated several projects that are now beloved parts of the Missoula Valley: Kelly Island (1974), Pineview Park (1975), the Bugbee Preserve (1975), and Tom Green Park (1975), and three donations of land along the Clark Fork River that would eventually be transferred into public ownership.
During this time, the young FVRPA worked hard to engage the public, including opening their meetings to the community, leading river walks, and organizing the first Clark Fork River cleanup. In 1980, City of Missoula residents passed the state’s first Open Space Bond. The community, with the support of the FVRPA and many partners, directed the $500,000 bond towards projects such as the protection of the southwest face of Mount Jumbo, John Toole Park, and the Kim Williams Trail.
These successes set the stage for both the projects and the organization to come: The Missoula County Commissioners, recognizing that a community land trust may could to guide the future of the rapidly growing community, began discussions about creating one. It seemed a natural fit to broaden the scope of the now well-known FVRPA. On April 17, 1989, the Five Valleys River Park Association was transformed into Five Valleys Land Trust.
The County provided the land trust’s first office and funded a ½ time Executive Director position held by Amy Eaton O’Herren. The first Board of Directors included Arnold Bolle, Ron Bender, Bob Burke, Betty duPont, Robert Henry, Randy Jacobs, Hal Luttschwager, Katherine Roush, John Talbot, Dave Tawney, Charles Tribe, and Virginia Tribe.
In the years that followed, the organization grew out of its need for County support and into its new shoes, starting with the 1992 Rattlesnake Greenway project. Five Valleys opened up shop in the basement of First National Bank and Tracy Stone-Manning was elected Executive Director, followed by Greg Tollefson in 1993. Just a few years later, Five Valleys would assume the good work of the Rock Creek Trust and lead the protection of Mount Jumbo, setting the course of the “gracious civic enterprise” for decades to come.
Header photo: Missoula residents along the Clark Fork River corridor, circa 1970