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Last week the Prickly Pear Land Trust announced their third Open Space Bond project, which preserved about 270 acres of open space along Prickly Pear Creek north of the Helena Airport and will provide a small fishing access site on the creek.

The project epitomizes what kind of good things can be done when partnerships happen between public and private organizations. It also provides another example of how the Open Lands Bond money can be leveraged to both directly and indirectly benefit the public.

The project on Prickly Pear Creek involves a tract of land that was initially approved as a 325-unit subdivision. However, the development was halted by a lawsuit and the land ended up owned by Mountain West Bank.

About 18 months ago, folks at the land trust began to build partnerships to keep the property as working agriculture land and provide some recreation opportunities.

Ultimately, the project announced last week is a result of those partnerships. About 36 acres of the land will be open to the public and potentially managed as a fish access site by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. (That agency still has to put the project through its acquisition and planning process.) The remainder of the land, which now has a conservation easement attached to it that perpetually limits development, was purchased by adjacent rancher Gary Burnham.

Lewis and Clark County approved the use of about $304,500 of Open Lands Bond money to pay Mountain West Bank for the value of the conservation easement. The land trust also used a $190,000 grant from the Land and Water Conservation Fund to purchase the 36 acres for the fishing access site.

In 2008, when voters in Lewis and Clark County narrowly approved the Open Lands Bond, projects like this were what the land trust and supporters had in mind. These are projects that will keep traditional working ag lands in production and also provide habitat protection, recreation and open space.

“It protects the open ag land that’s been in use for generations, but a small part of it provides a new fishing access site that will be the first of its kind in the Helena valley,” said Andy Baur, executive director of the Prickly Pear Land Trust.

With the three Open Lands Bond projects approved so far, less than $1 million of bond money has been utilized. And though opponents of the bond feared the mandate of public access, the project on Prickly Pear Creek provides the public access site because the land trust was able to purchase land to be conveyed to FWP. Burnham will dictate access to his property as he sees fit, Baur said.

One of the greatest amenities Helena and the rest of Montana has is its natural beauty and ease of access to outdoor recreation. It’s what draws in and keeps people here. Protecting that beauty takes effort from a lot of different people and entities. Not every piece of developable property in the Helena Valley is suitable for a conservation easement. But thanks to the foresight of the voters of Lewis and Clark County, Baur and the Open Lands Board have a tool to help preserve some of the open space and ag land we treasure.

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