Adventure

They Almost Lost Access to Their Beloved Ski Hill—Then They Acted

Young evergreen trees are reclaiming the formerly groomed ski runs at Marshall Mountain, just outside Missoula, Montana. In the winter, backcountry skiers descend its slopes, donning headlamps to earn turns in the dark before or after work. In the summer, mountain bikers let out shouts of jubilee as they whiz down the maze of trails, and the base area bustles with kids’ camp groups. A rust-speckled Pepto Bismol-pink chairlift dangles unmoving behind a clock tower whose hands haven’t budged for over two decades, but this ski hill is far from abandoned.

All that almost changed during the summer of 2021, when a dramatic property sale nearly went through, one that might have closed the bottom half of the mountain. But two local couples who hoped to preserve access made a last-minute backup offer to buy the property instead. That second deal ultimately went through, and the new owners are now leasing it to the city of Missoula for $10 for up to two years, with an option for the city to buy the property in June 2023. The city is working toward that now. “They bought our community time,” said Morgan Valliant, Missoula Parks and Recreation’s ecosystem services director, who is overseeing the project. “That is really rare.”

The city of Missoula is now working to acquire the base parcel of Marshall Mountain for $1.85 million, along with the land trust parcel and one additional parcel, to create a 480-acre park.
Alex Kim/High Country News

Missoula’s on-again, almost off-again access to a powdery paradise and mountain-biking mecca just a 15-minute drive from downtown illustrates the risky nature of relying on landowners’ goodwill for outdoor experiences. Now, Missoulians — including the city, nonprofits, a land trust and other outdoor recreation and conservation groups — are determined to guarantee public access, once and for all.

Generations of Montanans grew up skiing at Marshall Mountain. A crude rope tow began pulling people up the hill in 1937, and the ski area officially opened in the winter of 1941. Kerosene flames illuminated the mountain’s first night in 1957, and for the next several decades, the slopes remained open. But financial difficulties and a lack of consistent snowfall forced the owners to shutter the resort in 2003.

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The ski area splintered: The top, which had been leased from a timber company, was purchased by The Nature Conservancy, and then, in 2015, donated to Five Valleys Land Trust. The ski resort’s owners retained the base and allowed organized races and informal public access for parking, skiing and mountain biking. With its relatively safe terrain, Marshall became a beloved training ground for beginning skiers and mountain bikers. “It’s a coveted space by a lot of people,” said Alex Kim, founder of Here Montana, a social enterprise dedicated to increasing access to outdoor activities for people of color.

But community access became uncertain in 2015, when the base owners put the 156-acre plot up for sale, and even more tenuous in 2021. Out-of-state buyers were under contract when the two local couples swooped in with a successful backup offer of $2.16 million. (The almost-owners later filed a lawsuit, alleging breach of contract.)

Missoula is now working to acquire the base parcel for $1.85 million, along with the land trust parcel and one additional parcel, to create a 480-acre park. A planning process, spearheaded by the SE Group consulting firm, will conclude with a final master plan in early 2023. Municipalities have bought defunct ski resorts before, according to the consultants. The village of Ascutney, Vermont, and Huerfano County in Colorado each bought old ski hills in recent years and partnered with local nonprofits to run them.

But Missoula is pursuing a different path: It will manage the mountain, adding the property to its Parks and Recreation department’s lands. A nonprofit, Friends of Marshall Mountain, is raising money for acquisition, improvements and long-term maintenance. The city also plans to use some of the funding from an open-space bond passed in 2018 for the purchase, and it hopes to cover the rest with grants and partnerships. Last summer, Missoula solicited public input for a community visioning process. Over 1,300 people provided comments — double the amount of feedback on any other city project. “The breadth of community support, or at least interest, passion or nostalgia?” Valliant said. “You don’t often get that.”

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The project’s success requires a community with money to spare that loves the hill and its associated sports. It also relies heavily on the private sector. “If we really want to preserve our way of life and our connectivity, with the pace of development and land sales right now, it takes people like that stepping up, and with very altruistic means,” Valliant said, referring to the 2021 buyers. But it’s not a foolproof approach; elsewhere in the West, some landowners block, rather than facilitate, access — from suing hunters for corner crossing to reach public lands in Wyoming to gating crucial roads in Montana.

Today, Marshall Mountain is at a crossroads. What will its future be like under new municipal ownership? The city’s draft master plan shows potential changes, including a new trail for handcycles, a beginner bunny hill with magic carpet conveyor belts, more parking and covered structures for gathering. Some old structures, like the lodge and lift, will likely be demolished for safety reasons, though backcountry skiing will continue.

Missoula plans to manage the Marshall Mountain, adding the property to its Parks and Recreation department’s lands. Alex Kim/High Country News

But in order for Marshall to become a true gathering space for Missoulians, barriers like affordability and transportation need to be addressed. Kim has led hiking and snowshoeing outings at Marshall in the past and said the area “plays an important but inaccessible role” in Missoula’s outdoor recreation scene. A lack of public transportation routes up the canyon limits who can get there, and Kim said the city’s standard insurance requirements for events can be restrictive for small groups like his. The city is considering new user fees — already the norm elsewhere for reserving a picnic shelter or using a ropes course — to balance raising operating funds and keep visitor costs down. “We could design a total pay-to-play model where we’re generating a bunch of profit to run the site, but we wanted to get away from that,” Valliant said.

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Missoulians are ironing out the details, raising money and awaiting bond funding approval from the city council and county commissioners. Meanwhile, Marshall’s fate as a community recreation destination remains uncertain. This summer, Nathan McLeod, Missoula Parks and Recreation’s landscape architect, was mountain biking at the hill when he overheard people chatting about how glad they were that Marshall was saved. Not yet, he thought. “We have not saved it,” McLeod said. “It’s important people realize we still have a lot of work to do.”

This piece was originally published at High Country News and appears here with permission.

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