When Emmett Purcell walks through Helena’s downtown, it’s more than bricks and glass that he sees.

This is his town. Purcell was born and raised here. His parents owned Helena Stamp Works that was then located on Main Street.

“I remember washing the windows, oiling the floors,” Purcell, 51, said as he sat and had coffee at a business a couple of blocks from where his parents’ store had been located.

He’s from an Irish Catholic family. His mother’s uncles worked in the mines of Butte. His mother helped out at the church. Sharing in chores at the family store when he was old enough is part of what made him who he is -- a heritage he’s passing along to others who also call Helena home.

Purcell figures he volunteers maybe 400 hours a year between helping groom ski trails on MacDonald Pass and building, maintaining or helping promote the city’s roughly 75 miles of bicycling and hiking trails.

One of the family lessons that guide him today is knowing that if you’re going to do something, do it right, he said.

“I still take some pride in doing it right,” he said. “Trail work is definitely one of those things.”

Building character

Purcell is the trails assistant for the Prickly Pear Land Trust. It’s a modest title considering the importance he sees in building new trails and maintaining existing ones.

When the Land Trust has its community trail day each month between April and September, he’s there to work with the volunteers that include public school students to Boy Scouts seeking the rank of Eagle Scout.

Teachers such as Andy Roberts, Geoff Proctor and Scott Herzig, Purcell said, are among those who expose students to what trail work can do for them and their community.

While volunteers’ labor benefits the community, those who swing the tools that carve trails out of landscape also benefit, he said.

People get real excited seeing a trail they’ve made out of a corridor, Purcell explained and added “There’s that pride in doing it.”

Even eighth graders, who may arrive without enthusiasm for trail work, walk away with smiles and feelings of self-satisfaction, Purcell said.

“It’s neat to see.”

“We’re really laying the groundwork for some really neat individuals coming out of our community,” he said.

Trail work also helps build a sense of community, Purcell said and explained that the different groups joining together for a day’s work learn about each other and find commonalities.

“It starts tearing down misperceptions,” he said. “You’re sharing that pride in the project.

“That’s probably one of the neatest things with trail work.”

Appreciating an asset

Purcell got his first job in a bicycle shop when he was 12. By age 18, he had found mountain bike racing and that he had a talent for it. Mountain biking has opened doors for him.

He competed on a professional circuit although it wasn’t particularly lucrative. But in those days he wasn’t spending much either. Racing allowed him to travel and explore. It introduced him to friends who created opportunities for him.

“It probably made me who I am today,” he said.

There have long been trails in the mountains that flank Helena and Purcell and friends would take mountain bikes up onto them. That was a long time ago, long before those trails became the community asset they are today.

Riding the trails, he and other of his high school friends were willing to stop and do a little work on their own when it was needed.

“Just a few of us started clearing and hitting the trouble spots on the trails that we were using,” he said.

When home construction was announced for Mount Ascension, he and others took notice. So did those who formed the Prickly Pear Land Trust, he said.

Plans for development were a catalyst for discussion on open space and what the community should look like for the next generation. The passage of Helena’s open space bond in 1995 provided money for preserving open space – an asset outside of the city’s backdoor.

It’s the trails’ close proximity to town that he sees as setting Helena apart from other communities.

Those trails have given the city international recognition from the International Mountain Bicycling Association. The city’s trails initially earned the association’s bronze ranking before winning a silver ride designation.

When writers and photographers come to Helena for stories about the mountain biking that’s here, he is often sought by Bike Helena to assist.

Economics of recreation

Work by Purcell and others under the Prickly Pear Land Trust’s guidance helped Helena earn national attention for its mountain bike trails. Building and maintaining trails is a job for him with Land Trust but it’s also a hobby for him.

“I think that in the bigger picture, your open space preserves the character of your community. But it’s also a piece of the economic puzzle,” he said.

The Missouri River, a prized trout fishery, contributes to the city’s economy as does hunting. Mountain biking draws people to Helena too, he said.

Moab, Utah, understands the value of mountain biking tourism just as do other cities in the U.S. and Canada, Purcell said.

Mountain bikers in Moab contribute more to that economy than does off-road motorized recreation.

A 2011 report on Grand County, Utah, where Moab is located, by Headwaters Economics of Bozeman, found tourism and recreation on public lands were the county’s largest economic sector with biking ranking third in spending to hiking that ranked first. Motor vehicle use ranked below biking.

“I think we’re definitely embracing how nice the recreation is that we have,” Purcell said of what Helena offers.

And it’s encouraging to see that the community is realizing the role that recreation plays in the local economy, he added.

The city is earning a place on the map for recreation as he sees it, a place where people will want to stop for a few days when passing through the area.

“We’re not far from being world famous for our trails.”

“The trails are still quiet when you go out to use them,” he continued.

“It’s just too good.”

Caring for the community

Purcell exchanges greetings with those who also stop by for coffee. Smiles, nods, a hand on his shoulder accompany greetings. This is his town.

His family had a large route delivering the newspaper each morning and as a boy he shared in the delivery. He also did yard work for some of those same families who relied on him for each day’s newspaper. Whatever he did, he wanted to do well. These were his neighbors.

He appreciates what Helena has to offer. It’s a city with neighborhoods, he said, and people who know the histories of those neighborhoods.

“People really care about the type of town that we have.”

Mountain biking has allowed him to travel and see other places but “Helena’s where I want to be,” he explained.

When asked who he is, he paused before responding “someone with a passion.”

Trails seem to be calling him, he said and smiled.

“I’ve always had a passion for it, how much I enjoy being out there.”

Preserving and expanding the community’s trails, just as is the time he volunteers to promote skiing on MacDonald Pass, “takes a bunch of us to get this stuff done,” he said.

“We have such a nice place to play, we want to take care of it.”

“If you’re going to use it, you should take care of it,” Purcell said.

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Al Knauber can be reached at al.knauber@helenair.com


I am a staff writer at the Independent Record covering primarily city and county governments.

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