Three properties in the greater Helena area may be purchased using, in part, funds from the sale of the Canyon Ferry cabin sites.

The joint state and federal board that oversees the Montana Fish & Wildlife Conservation Trust agreed this week to contribute $50,000 toward buying 17 acres on the Mount Helena ridge, which a popular trail bisects; $249,000 for critical elk wintering grounds west of Helena; and $39,000 for parcels on Mount Ascension that provide part of the backdrop to the capital city.

In addition, the board agreed to provide $50,000 to the group that is trying to purchase and refurbish the twin Silos north of Townsend.

The funding was only a portion of what was requested in some of the cases, but Andy Baur, executive director of the Prickly Pear Land Trust, said the grants are always appreciated.

“It’s a critical source of funding for open space acquisitions in the Upper Missouri drainage, and we are grateful that it’s available,” Baur said. “We’ll just have to make sure that we continue to meet their criteria.”

The conservation trust was created through the sale of about 265 cabin sites around Canyon Ferry Reservoir that previously were owned by the federal Bureau of Reclamation. As part of the deal worked out with conservationists who were concerned that the government was giving up valuable public lands, the act authorizing the sale insisted that 50 percent of the interest raised off investing the fund must be spent to purchase land, conservation easements or improve public access in the Upper Missouri drainage; the other 50 percent can be used for the same purposes elsewhere in Montana.

As of Thursday, the trust fund was around $19.5 million and about $728,000 was available for projects. However, the trust’s board is considering making additional money available this year.

“In the past, we said we would allocate about 4 percent, but we could do more or less,” said Rick Hotaling, who represents the Bureau of Land Management on the board. “… If the purpose of the trust is to buy land and if a good opportunity comes up, then let’s do it.”

The 17 acres on the Mount Helena ridge is one of numerous private in-holdings on the Helena National Forest and was highly coveted by the federal agency, for both its recreational use as well as for elk wintering ground, according to Bill Orsello, who is a public representative on the board and a member of a Citizen Advisory Board — or CAB — which looks over the proposed projects and makes funding recommendations.

“The ridge trail goes right through it and the owner had tried to close it,” Orsello said. “The Forest Service also was concerned that someone might buy it and want access, which would create almost two miles of roadway. It’s a real problematic in-holding.”

The recommendation to grant $50,000 to the project passed unanimously, as did all the other recommendations.

West of Helena, the Prickly Pear Land Trust is working with The Conservation Fund to purchase 421 acres known as the “Four Kids” property. It’s on the south side of Highway 12, just beyond the Broadwater Club and Hot Springs, and abuts Helena National Forest land.

Orsello said it starts out as a small canyon, but opens into meadows that provide space for elk to winter and calve, with multiple springs on it. It also provides good access to public lands.

He noted that the trusts that want to purchase the property to give to the Forest Service requested $350,000, but after weighing the available funding and other projects, the CAB recommended giving the groups a $249,000 grant. The total purchase price is expected to be in the $1.5 million to $2 million range.

“We need to get more money from other sources too for this purchase, or obviously it may or may not go forward,” Baur said, adding that they might try to tap into the recently passed $10 million Lewis and Clark County open space bond.

Acquisition of 11 parcels totaling 256 acres near the top of Mount Ascension is an ongoing project, with nine lots having been purchased and five of those already turned over to the city of Helena for trails and open space. Baur proudly notes that the lots’ appraised value was $2 million, but by working with the landowners they hope to acquire the land for about $1.5 million.

“We still need to raise around $400,000, plus another $275,000 to acquire two additional lots to finish it off,” Baur said. “People have been generous in the past to help us reach our goal.”

Orsello noted that the land already contains a heavily used trail system, and also is home to deer and elk herds. At one time, a major subdivision was proposed for the area, but it never was developed.

“The Prickly Pear Land Trust has a long-term goal of retiring those properties and putting them back to (being) public lands,” Orsello said.

However, while the group requested a $200,000 grant, Orsello said the CAB recommended funding only $39,000 at this time, again due to limited funding.

He noted that the Silos project didn’t score high on the CAB’s rating system, especially based on the high appraised value of the property because it abuts Highway 12. But the land holds year-round warm springs for migrating waterfowl as well as for deer, elk and antelope that roam in the area. Orsello added that it also is a valuable travel corridor for wildlife, which is why the board agreed to put $50,000 toward the property.

Other projects in Montana that received funding approval include:

- $100,000 for a conservation easement on the Dugas Farm along the Missouri River near Ulm.

- $35,000 a conservation easement that will allow public access in the Hall/Camas Creek area near the Blackfoot River.

- $50,000 for acquiring the Wolf Creek property near Lewistown, which is private land among a state wildlife management area and a former pheasant hunting preserve.

- $50,000 to expand the Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge.

- $40,000 to acquire land as part of a trail system near Kalispell.

- $65,000 for conservation easements near Dillon, on a ranch that Orsello described as “one of the highest scoring” for public access, wildlife values and recreational opportunity.

Reporter Eve Byron:


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