Marshall Mountain could be a crown jewel of the city of Missoula’s open space and recreation offerings.
But that’s only if the city can decide to buy the former ski area turned mountain bike park. And if it buys the site, located 5.2 miles northeast of downtown and a drainage immediately east of Rattlesnake Creek, then the city will have to figure out what to do with it. Thursday evening, as the autumn sun set behind the mountains, 19 representatives from stakeholder groups gathered at the base of the former ski resort to discuss the recreational, conservation and forestry potential the site could to offer.
Representatives at the site visit, technically a public meeting of the Missoula County Open Lands Citizens Advisory Committee, included committee members from the city and county, Lolo National Forest, Department of Natural Resources and of the Montana Conservation, the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, Five Valleys Land Trust, MTB Missoula and Friends of Marshall Mountain.
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“What are we going to do here?” Morgan Valliant, the city’s superintendent of ecosystem services, rhetorically asked the group. “That’s really what we’re trying to figure out in the next two months.”
The city leased the base area and lower portion of the mountain, a former downhill ski area that closed in 2002, for just over a year to Izzy Dog LLC, a group formed to buy the mountain from its owners. original owners, spurred on by the specter of private buyers closing the site to the public.
Izzy Dog began leasing the mountain to the city in June 2021. This lease expires after two years: next June. The potential private buyers – Dr Spencer Melby and his wife, Collette Melby, of Missouri – sued former Marshall Mountain owners Bruce and Kim Doering, real estate agent Dawn Maddux and Engel & Völkers Western Frontier after the failure of their purchase agreement. and the Doerings sold to Izzy Dog. Izzy Dog was created by Rick and Rita Wishcamper, along with Pam and Sandy Volkmann. The lawsuit is ongoing, but does not affect Izzy Dog’s ownership of the property or the City of Missoula’s eventual purchase of the site.
The upper part of the mountain, including the upper part of the ski lifts and mountain bike trails, has been owned by Five Valleys Land Trust for eight years, under an agreement originally brokered by The Nature Conservancy.
Since opening the site to the general public in August 2021, for wider use than at specific events, Valliant said, “we’ve seen usage here like we’ve never seen before.”
John Stegmaier, now executive director of the MTB Missoula Mountain Bike Group and former employee of the Missoula County Parks, Trails and Open Lands program, said the high level of use “is an illustration of the demand for ‘high quality leisure facilities’. The Missoula area is home to a wealth of intermediate and advanced mountain bike trails with steep climbs and descents, he said, and Marshall Mountain provides opportunities for badly needed beginner trails. The site has hosted national championships, Pro Cross-Country Tour races and international races for more than a decade.
Additionally, he said, Marshall Mountain’s connectivity to surrounding public land trails makes it particularly attractive and could mitigate the heavy use of Rattlesnake drainage.
Katie Knotek, recreation program manager for Lolo National Forest, said Marshall Mountain could “fill a niche the Forest Service hasn’t been able to” by providing a facility with ample parking and indoor shelter, which missing from most Forest Service starting points. The site is also unique for its purpose-built mountain bike trails, while Forest Service trails are typically built with a variety of users in mind.
But it’s unclear whether the site, if purchased by the city, will ultimately retain indoor shelter. Existing buildings have deteriorated to a point that may be beyond repair, Valliant said, although he noted that having some sort of interior space would be a critical part of the plans for the site. The chairlift is too damaged to be repaired.
Much of the uncertainty could be resolved in a future master plan being developed by the city and the Friends of Marshall Mountain. The plan, expected this fall, will include an estimate of acquisition and construction costs, as well as some sort of business plan outlining estimated operating and maintenance costs. Acquiring the 160-acre site owned by Izzy Dog, along with the adjoining 160-acre Land Trust site and another 160-acre parcel immediately to the north, could cost up to $2.5 million, said Valliant. Some of this money would come from grants and private funds solicited by Friends of Marshall Mountain. The rest would likely come from the Open Space Bond, he said.
But the site offers more than top-notch mountain biking trails.
Ladd Knotek, FWP fisheries biologist, noted that Marshall Creek – a mostly channelized creek that runs through the canyon and through the heart of the base area – is “incredible trout habitat.” The creek, although ditch routed in places, has a thriving trout population and is home to a genetically pure population of native cutthroat trout.
“It’s really unusual for a stream in this state to be this productive,” he said.
The site also holds potential for what officials have described as much-needed forestry work. The wooded areas of the site, they said, were densely overgrown.
Erik Warrington, DNRC’s stewardship program manager, cited the nearby Marshall Woods Project, in development since 2017, as an example of cross-border forest treatments on private and public lands involving prescribed burns and non-commercial timber harvesting. to improve forest conditions in the forest-urban interface zone. Similar work would be possible at Marshall Mountain if the city acquired it.