Andy Baur drives past a jogger, then a woman walking her dog on Arrowroot Road as he heads toward the summit of Mount Ascension. He pulls over next to a large meadow surrounded by treed hillsides, gets out of the car and looks around him, thrilled at what he doesn't see.
Baur is the executive director of the Prickly Pear Land Trust, which has been working in earnest in recent years on the "Backdrop Initiative." The goal is to conserve Helena's scenic mountainous backdrop, as well as to protect and expand the popular South Hills Trail System on Mount Ascension.
The area where Baur stopped was subdivided in 1992 into 23 lots ranging in size from 20 to 60 acres, and sold to a variety of investors. Some of those properties now sport homes, but fearing that the area would become even more developed - as has happened on so many mountainsides in Montana - Baur contacted the landowners on the vacant parcels to see if they were interested in selling.
"I'm not sure why they weren't built upon; each story is different," Baur said. "Some people had visions of living up here, and decided for various reasons it wasn't feasible. Some places were too expensive to build a house upon, or the driveway would have cost too much, and others bought them as investments."
But when approached by the Land Trust, many of those property owners agreed to sell, often below the appraised value in order to get a tax break.
Last year, the trust was able to purchase five parcels totaling 130 acres that it gave to the City of Helena for inclusion in the Mount Ascension Natural Park. They've now acquired four more parcels, using a mix of grants, loans and donations, and are trying to raise about $440,000 plus interest during the next three years so they can pay off the lenders, then once again turn the land over to the city. They're also working with the owners of two other parcels, optimistic that the sales will go through.
"There's the Entertainment Trail, a classic ridgeline trail," Baur says as he points to the west. "A lot of people just assumed it was a public trail, when in fact it crossed some private parcels."
Along with preserving access to popular trails, the acquisitions are helping to protect habitat for elk, deer, birds and other wildlife that move through or reside in the area.
Brad Langsather, the city's natural resource coordinator, said they're thrilled with the donations, even though he estimates weed control will run about $641 per year, removing some of the trees killed by mountain pine beetles will cost an estimated $76,000 and trail maintenance will total about $182 annually.
"Management of the land was brought forth by the commissioners, as far as the financial end of this, and that's certainly something we have to look at and plan for, which is what we're doing," Langsather said. "We looked at all those items, but in my opinion, the gain far outweighs the cost, and the commission supported the Land Trust.
"We are looking forward to adding some more opportunities up there for recreationalists, and as more people are using our city parks, like Mount Helena, we hope to have another large trailhead atop Mount Ascension to take off some of the pressure."
Baur readily acknowledges that the donation comes with a price tag for the city, but like Langsather, he believes that it's well worth the management costs.
"This land was not being actively managed, causing potential issues with weeds, timber management and destruction from unauthorized motorized access," Baur said. "It only made sense that it be included with adjoining city land to provide for the best possible management scenario while at the same time providing for legal public access to this beautiful area."
Along with private donations and loans, the nonprofit land trust tapped into the Montana Fish and Wildlife Conservation Trust and the FWP's State Trails program for the purchases.
Back in Helena, Baur pulls over near St. Peter's Hospital and points out the meadow where he was standing a few short minutes ago. In 100 years, it may have a few more trees on it, and the fact that no houses will grow there is important to him.
"You can see the iconic grassy hills and some timber that form the backdrop of the city and the capital," Baur said. "This is the quintessential Montana landscape, which defines Helena when you come in from the north."
Reporter Eve Byron: 447-4076 or email@example.com