Mountain lions, foxes, and black bears wander through deep woody draws etched into the Deschamps family's sprawling property above Grass Valley. Elk graze on native grasses that grow tall in the summer sun. Sweet-smelling yarrow and patches of purple lupine cover the hillside. As the landowners for more than 100 years have resisted development on this pristine property, native wildflowers grow here, despite a weed infiltration that plagues much of the local landscape. In fact, the 1,036-acre property, 10 miles west of Missoula, looks much the same as it did in 1908 when, according to county records, Quebecois settlers Gaspard and Antoine Deschamps bought it for $2.
Gaspard's great-grandson, Charlie Deschamps, honed his hunting skills here when he was a teen. The tall man with a ruddy complexion recalls tracking white-tailed deer across the rolling hills and building fences to hold the family's cattle. "Dad would make us pack fence post down the line," he says.
Even after devoting years to maintaining the Grass Valley property, Charlie Deschamps never tires of exploring the land that his grandfather grew enamored of so long ago. That's why he persuaded Deschamps family members to agree to a conservation easement earlier this month that now ensures the property will remain off-limits to development in perpetuity. "I don't want to see it subdivided," Charlie says. "It's just a unique piece of ground."
The conservation easement means the property's highest point, a grassy knob above Interstate 93 on the way to Evaro Hill, will remain a wild place. Preserving Missoula's viewshed is one of the reasons Missoula Open Space Program Manager Jackie Corday couldn't contain her excitement in the months leading up to the Deschamps easement. "I just kept holding my breath through the spring, going, 'Please close, please close," she says.
Until now, only family members, friends, and stockgrowers who lease land to graze cattle on the Deschamps spread have enjoyed the property. But an unusual stipulation in the conservation easement provides for public access at certain times. Corday is working with the Missoula Parks and Recreation Department to schedule four natural history field trips there every year.
"This piece was just so special that I asked the landowner to do a public access agreement," Corday says. "We thought it would be nice to bring people up here to see this."
Opening a new view to the public—one that's wholly different from other city or county open-space property—provided yet another selling point when Corday pitched the easement to the Missoula City Council and the Board of County Commissioners. After visiting the Deschamps ranch, the two governing bodies agreed unanimously to split the easement's $350,000 price tag. The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation helped facilitate the transaction. According to an appraisal commissioned by the nonprofit Elk Foundation in 2009 and updated this year, the parcel as a whole with development rights intact could have sold for $1.3 million.
The Deschamps easement is only one of the Missoula Open Space program's most recent accomplishments. Since 1995, locals have passed two ballot measures to invest $15 million toward keeping Missoula's hilly mountainsides unblemished, building new trails, and keeping local parklands free for recreation and wildlife. Voters in 2006 passed the last measure, investing $10 million, by a 70 percent margin.
Since 1995, the city and county's open space programs together have secured more than 11,000 acres of conservation easements and outright acquisitions. This past year has been one of the most fruitful. The city obtained a 304-acre easement on the North Hills and acquired 216 acres on Mount Jumbo's east side along with 102 acres on Bonner Hill.
The Deschamps easement is "one of our biggest projects to date," Corday says. "This was the centerpiece."
Corday attributes strong voter support for the open space program to a sense of reassurance locals feel when they look up at Mount Sentinel or the North Hills. Those vast mountainsides give city dwellers room to breathe, physically and psychologically. It's easy to escape city confines in minutes. "There's not too many cities in the world, I think, where you can do that," Corday says.
Missoula's approach to conservation is growing a national reputation. Corday says she frequently gets calls from out of state, from people saying, "'Hey, I heard about your Open Space program, we're trying to get something going like that in our city.'"
Charlie Deschamps's nephew, Perry Gaspard Deschamps Jr., looks south from the family's Grass Valley property on a recent summer day. He imagines his grandfather taking in this same view—the jagged peaks of the Mission Mountains jutting up from the north, the Bitterroots defining the valley's southwest edge, the Clark Fork River as it rushes through Missoula. "It's nice to be a steward," he says, "to know that it's going to be here for another 100 years."