As Andrea Silverman and Andy Baur meander on a 266-acre parcel just off York Road in the Helena Valley, they’re greeted by an osprey flying overhead and a couple of white-tailed deer taking refuge along Prickly Pear Creek.
Silverman points across a large field toward Russian olive trees, which form part of the parcel’s boundary. Only six years ago, this wide open space was slated to become the Aspen Trail Ranch subdivision, with up to 650 homes and businesses.
But after the city of Helena approved a 325-unit subdivision, the development was halted by a lawsuit and the developer eventually gave up the title to the land to Mountain West Bank.
Baur, executive director of the Prickly Pear Land Trust, said that about 18 months ago his group started developing partnerships to work toward maintaining the agricultural use of the land and protecting the riparian habitat of the creek. They also envisioned a place in the valley where the community could fish, bird watch or picnic.
This week, they announced that the vision became a reality.
Initially, the Land Trust used a $304,500 grant from the $10 million Lewis and Clark County Open Space Bond to pay the bank for a conservation easement on the parcel. The restrictions imposed on the land by the easement — allowing only one home site and encouraging agricultural use — brought down the price enough for Gary Burnham, an adjacent rancher who leased the property, to buy 230 acres from the bank. He plans to use it for his family’s internationally renowned Simmental cattle operation.
“As ranches become more isolated in the valley, the Aspen Trails piece was important for us to actually to be able to expand our operations,” Burnham said. “We were already leasing that ground, and wanted to permanently incorporate it into our operation.”
The PPLT then used a $190,000 grant from the Land and Water Conservation Fund — a trust created from the sale of cabin sites at Canyon Ferry Reservoir — to purchase the remaining 36 acres from the bank. They plan to donate the property to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks to use as the only public fishing access site on Prickly Pear Creek in the valley.
Baur said they couldn’t have pulled the project together without the support of the partners.
“The key to this was working with the Burnhams and their willingness to do an easement, and then Mountain West Bank gave us the time to get the details together and get the money together,” he said. “They really liked this project and realized it’s good for the community.”
An old house, where Helena artist Bob Morgan was born in 1929 and spent his early years, remains on the property, as do a wide range of outbuildings.
“There was no electricity or running water back then and there were chores aplenty. But the fishing was 20 yards away and there were ducks and pheasants out the bedroom window,” Morgan said. “All in all, the ranch was a great place to begin a life. It means more than I can say to see it preserved.”
Silverman, the PPLT land protection coordinator, notes that most of the structures, which have roofs caving in and cracked foundations, will be removed. But a stone icehouse, with foot-thick walls, may have some historic values and probably will be retained.
“They used to cut ice out of Stansfield Lake — it used to be huge — and use the ice for the railroad,” Silverman said. “The icehouse is the prettiest little building on the property.”
In November 2012, the FWP Commission gave initial approval to start work on an Environmental Assessment for a possible fishing access site and parking area. Currently there aren’t any formal public access sites on Prickly Pear Creek in the valley, and to get to the stream anglers must use county road bridges, go through state land or seek landowner permission.
Ron Aasheim with FWP said they’re still working on details of the proposed donation and they’re not sure when the EA will be ready for public comments.
Baur said that along with the riparian and agricultural values, the parcel will provide open space for Helena residents long after any additional development takes place in the valley. He noted that numerous recreational opportunities have been developed in the South Hills, and they’re thrilled to provide a heritage project in the Helena Valley.
John Tietz, chairman of the Open Space Bond Committee, said this project is what the fund was designed to do.
“Our goal is to provide funding that will provide opportunities to work with landowners in protecting key agricultural lands, wildlife habitat and water resources,” Tietz said. “The Aspen Trails project does all these things and allows the Burnham family to continue this traditional agricultural use.”