City’s First Park Paved Way for Conservation Mindset

Morgan Valliant peered into the stone bear cage, his stubbled face flattened against the rusted steel door. He nodded toward the back of the structure, built 15 feet wide of Rattlesnake Creek cobbles, some as big as watermelons, where two dens had been bored into the hill. His eyes adjusted to the darkness inside. They roamed, searching for details to share about Missoula’s first park.

Morgan, 43, turned to face the creek, which swelled by early May. The glare off the water forced his sunglasses and ballcap back on. He stepped onto the paved trail, pinching the eighth of nine ticks he’d found by midday. When you’re the city’s conservation lands manager you learn to accept the outdoors. When you understand Greenough Park’s history you know conflicts occur between humans and nature.

In 1902, Thomas and Tennie Greenough, who built their wealth on timber and mining, gave the city most of the park’s 42 acres. According to the original deed, the land is to be preserved so Missoulians can enjoy “a comfortable, romantic, and poetic retreat.”

Morgan and others say the gift, meant to remain forever as a public natural space, was a catalyst for the way Missoulians protect and enjoy the general landscape today.

Morgan hiked deeper into the park, his copper mutt, Hugo, in tow. He stopped at a grove of Norway maples—a nonnative, invasive species planted long ago. The tree has no natural predators and turns lush groundcover into bare soil.

Efforts over the years to alter the park from its natural state also include an animal menagerie, wading pool, and fish pond, according to a 1955 settlement between the family and city. The Greenoughs threatened to reclaim their land after the city bulldozed trees to make way for a ballpark. After arbitration, the sides agreed to “The 13 Points,” legal guideposts for how to manage the land in perpetuity.

Of course, science changed. The family originally wanted dead trees removed promptly. As ecological practices evolved both sides grew flexible. Morgan said experts now know dead trees provide habitat to more species than a live stand does.

“Thirty-eight species,” a woman, jogging by, said.

Morgan half-chuckled. “That’s why I love Missoula,” he said.

He turned from the hillside, where heavy equipment was approved to restabilize the banks, and down a narrow dirt trail. Suddenly, Morgan was surrounded by hawthorn thickets, elderberry, black cottonwoods. Civilization seemed distant. Somewhere above, Canada geese honked. The cool forest floor smelled of fish, smoothed stone, and moss.

“Maybe it’s a coincidence there’s a strong conservation ethic here,” Morgan said, standing at the edge of tumbling rapids. “But it’s interesting our very first park was set aside as a natural area for the enjoyment of the public. I think it planted something in the psyche of Missoulians.”

Emy Scherrer, historic preservation officer with the city, agrees. “This initial land donation acted as one of the catalysts for our communal appreciation of our natural environment,” she said. “From any vantage point in Missoula, you’re surrounded by open lands in the distance, which is pretty special.”

Morgan crossed a footbridge and returned to the bear cage. He said the city’s police chief fed the bears, which were caged there from 1905 to the 1930s. Some say they were the university’s mascots.

At 114 years old, the cage needs repair again. Morgan and others plan to restore it. If approved, they’ll add interpretive signs.

“Missoula used to keep black bears in there,” he said. “We still have bears in the park but I’m glad they’re on the outside of the cage now.”