Our Side of the Mountain

 By Deirdre McNamer/New York Times-Opinion Pages

Missoula, Mont.

Sometimes I’ll sit on the front steps of our yellow bungalow and think about swimming up through 2,000 feet of water to catch a breath. It’s what I would have had to do 12,000 years ago when the Missoula Valley was the bottom of a stupendously big lake. The mountains that rise from the edges of town still show the striations that were the lake’s shorelines during subsequent glacial dramas that drained and refilled the valley, time after time after time.

Until quite recently, the mountains had houses only up to the lower shorelines. An exception was an extravagant white Victorian, the showplace home of an early city father, that had, in 1966, been sawed into sections and moved from downtown to a mountainside area known as the South Hills, where it was turned into a restaurant. It burned down in 1992 and was rebuilt as a mini-castle-restaurant called Shadow’s Keep. For quite a while, it stood up there pretty much alone, looking like something that had fallen from a time machine. As you drove up to it, the houses on the lower hillsides thinned out, and then there was a stretch of open ranchland, and then you were there.

Now there is a big development above the restaurant called Mansion Heights, 158 sites where completed houses tend to be in the 5,000-square-foot range and sell for upward of a million dollars. At night you can look up from the old lake floor and see other houses high on the mountains as well; big houses, twinkling in the dark. People pay a lot to buy that land and build those houses because they get eagle’s-eye views and a sense of remove from the urban hubbub below, such as it is, though of course each house paves the way, quite literally, for others. So isolation as an amenity of the good life inevitably becomes more expensive to accomplish.

Since houses have begun sprouting all over the South Hills, the ranchland we pass on the way to Shadow’s Keep has come to seem more quaint with each passing year. It’s also looked, of course, like a cash cow, and you expect cash cows to go to market sooner or later.

What a surprise, then, when the three families who own that open land — about a thousand acres arranged adjacently across two miles of the South Hills — agreed that they wanted it to remain undeveloped forever, and last month sought conservation easements that would accomplish that. In short order, Missoula’s Open Space Advisory Committee voted unanimously to recommend that the city and county allocate what it could, about $1.16 million, from a 2006 open space bond for the easements. One of the families donated its parcel without asking for any compensation, and the other two will, if the city and county governing agencies approve the easements at the end of this month, get, in addition to some tax breaks and some extra compensation from a land trust, $680,000 and $640,000 respectively — far less than the price of many a Mansion Heights home.

Two of the families, the Lines and the Rimels, have run modest ranching operations up there for decades, and they say they want to keep doing what they’ve been doing, though the money certainly isn’t in ranching these days. They don’t plan to make a public park out of the area, or sell horseback rides or pitch down-filled teepees for tourists to sleep in. They plan only to keep it undeveloped.

I don’t see that particular swatch of mountainside from my front porch, but if the easements go through (which looks very likely), I’ll know, as I drink my coffee on the front steps, that a thousand acres up there on the ever-more-crowded banks of the ghost lake will never see a new house, simply because their owners, in an economic move that bought them nothing but their continuing livelihoods, wanted it that way. There is, I think, something quietly heroic about the whole business.

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