Richard Manning

This essay has been years in the making, accreting slowly in a series of images, like time-lapsed photography, each one a notch hotter in seething anger. Like much of our anger these days, mine is based in grief.

I have a long and deep history with the city of Missoula, have personally known, interviewed and challenged each mayor since John Toole in the mid-80s, except for the current one. With the outlier exception of Bob Lovegrove, I have found each to be decent humans seeking the best for the city, an understatement really.

Missoula, in fact, has been inordinately blessed with gifted leaders: Mike Kadas, Dan Kemmis and John Engen, friends. They have done good things, but so has the rest of Missoula, and through the years, from the very beginning, I have always believed one of the best things we have done as a citizenry is tax ourselves to preserve the conservation lands we love, the places that shape our lives.

Mt Jumbo is —- or at least was — my personal favorite, the place that looms outside my kitchen window as a I write this, and it looms large in my personal history. Much of the action from the initial easements to bond issues to pay for its preservation took shape over this exact same table.

Accordingly, Jumbo became my haunt. I once was afoot on its trails nearly every single day. No more. I cannot bear to go there anymore. Once I was a regular on the trail along Rattlesnake Creek. No more. Same reason. Grief.

In shouldering the responsibility for our hard-fought and paid-for conservation lands, the city assumed a sacred responsibility, and now it has failed. The prime directive is to attend to the health of the landscape, but through the years we have watched the slow advance of an old-growth knapweed forest. There is actually more biodiversity than this: sulphur cinquefoil, leafy spurge, Dalmation toadflax, the complete witches brew of invasive exotics creeping up slope. This is the death of an ecosystem. This is our shame, the source of my grief.

Yet throughout, I have watched with increasing dismay as the land’s managers turned a blind eye to real threat and instead resorted to a series of. jack leg fences and nanny state signage with claims to protecting the land when in fact the managers are primarily rationalizing and protecting their bureaucratic obsessions. It is as if they are confronted with a house with a rotten foundation and try to fix it by changing the curtains in the parlor. The insult added to injury is the drapes they have chosen are grotesque and in pattern and hideous in color. The city has so failed in its primary responsibility to the landscape that it has no legitimacy. None. Ignore the self-righteous signs and jack fence barriers. I do. They are a control freak’s folly.

The fundamental problem is this, that our conservation lands have been entrusted to a department labeled Parks and Recreation. The conservation lands are neither. The result we have now can be expected when responsibility for managing habitat is turned over to people whose skill set derives from blowing up soccer balls, chalking lines on softball fields and puffing propaganda on websites. At the very least, the lands’ management needs to be forcibly amputated from the parks department and entrusted to a separate, stand-alone entity run by restoration ecologists. Mt. Jumbo is now in fact a candidate site for restoration no different than a brownfield. It will take decades.

But this is my narrow view, and my sense is a wider look would tease out corresponding problems throughout the city. Yes, we have been blessed with a series of competent mayors, but like any successful institution, a city ossifies and founders in complacence and arrogance.

Luckily, though, a window on a remedy is opening just now. There is an election, and the city of Missoula needs nothing so much as a solid kick in the ass that a good election can deliver. Remember this in your conversations with candidates and especially with your vote.