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Open space bond: Committee OKs $775K for Missoula trailheads, park trees, riverbank

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Posted at 7:29 AM, Oct 17, 2019
and last updated 2019-10-17 09:35:00-04

MISSOULA - Trailheads, trees and the Clark Fork River may be the first beneficiaries of Missoula’s 2018 open space bond.

The Missoula City Council’s Parks and Conservation Committee voted unanimously Wednesday to approve a Parks and Recreation Department proposal to use $775,000 of the $15 million voter-approved bond to partially pay for three projects over the next two to four years.

The bond money will be used to attain matching grants to help pay for the projects. The Missoula City Council will take a final vote on the money’s use at its Nov. 4 meeting.

The three projects have been on the burner for years and were used as examples during the 2018 election season of what the countywide bond could support, said Donna Gaukler, Parks and Recreation director.

“I’ve been doing this since 2002. These projects are overdue,” Gaukler said.

First, $225,000 would be allocated to pay for preliminary engineering work, bank assessment, public outreach and documents to get the Clark Fork River Sustainable Access and Restoration Project underway. The money would be matched by other city funds.

Missoulians love the Clark Fork River, but they’re loving it too much, causing bank erosion and other problems on the stretch through town from Hellgate Canyon to just west of the Russell Street Bridge, Gaukler said. Her staff has identified more than 90 erosion points that need repair.

“We’ve invested so much in the river. So this is our part in preserving that precious place we call Missoula by protecting the river,” Gaukler said. “Up to $1.5 million could be spent here. We believe this project could get much larger in the $2 (million) to $3 million range. We believe there’s incredible opportunity for match through other grants.”

Efforts to get grants for the project before this have been unsuccessful. Now, with bond money in the coffer, grant boards will be more likely to give the project a second look, Gaukler said.

The second chunk of open space bond money – $263,000 – would fund the Conservation Lands Trailheads Project. Of that total, $130,000 would pay for improvements on Waterworks Hill, including enlarging the east trailhead parking lot. Another $165,000 would pay for upgrading other trailheads around the Missoula Valley.

Money from the Missoula Parks District and the Conservation Mill Levy would also help pay for this project.

Gaukler said many trailheads are poorly marked, people beat trails into areas where they don’t belong, like riparian areas, and Missoula needs a new trails map.

“The thing I like about (this project) is it’s throughout the valley on all city open space lands,” Gaukler said. “So folks in the Farviews/Pattee Canyon area will finally get to accomplish their goals related to their green spaces. And that’s just one example where they’ve been waiting so long with adopted plans to make something happen.”

The final project, the Open Space Reforestation Project, would get up to $250,000 to improve the abundance of trees in Missoula, which is in danger of not living up to its Tree City USA designation.

Gaukler said the city has been focused on planting trees along streets because streets get the most exposure. But that means that parks have been neglected, because the Parks and Recreation budget doesn’t have the money to pay for a lot of trees.

So Gaukler’s staff has identified city parks where trees are decaying or where there weren’t many trees to begin with. As part of the project, some trees would be removed, but then city workers along with contract labor would plant between 457 and 650 trees and install irrigation systems.

“If we could plant three to four trees for every one we’re removing, we’ll be in a much better place than we are today, where we’re probably removing one and a half to two for every one we’re planting,” Gaukler said. “From research, we know tree canopy not only provides cooling, but we do see a reduction in health-care costs and the amount of time people are finding the need for mental health services or use of medications of all kinds.”

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com .