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Originating as a backyard idea among some conservation minded Helenans, on Feb. 29, 1996, Prickly Pear Land Trust’s board of directors met for the first time. Now 20 years later, supporters are celebrating the organization’s growth from that initial meeting into one of the area’s most recognized drivers of land conservation and stewardship.

Board President Jonathan Krauss recalled the earliest days of the land trust -- a minuscule budget and hardly any staff except for some dedicated volunteers. Now Prickly Pear boasts a full-time director, multiple full-time staff and plenty of projects dotting the surrounding landscape from Helena to the Rocky Mountain Front.

“As the community has grown and we’ve seen success on conservation in our backyard we’ve really matured as an organization,” Krauss said. “But it started as a dream in people’s living rooms and backyard barbecues and we’ve been fortunate to have excellent staff and excellent board-member guidance that has allowed us to take off.”

Prickly Pear will mark two decades of work at its annual meeting on Thursday at Free Ceramics Studio, 650 Logan Street starting at 5:30 p.m. Although time to RSVP has closed, Executive Director Mary Hollow said those interested can still attend and hear about past and future projects.

Connie Cole, a 19-year board member, noted that the land trust’s initial concerns focused on proposed subdividing on Mount Ascension. While there was the perception among some that Prickly Pear was anti-development, “I think we managed to overcome that idea,’” she said.

“It’s now morphed into where Prickly Pear is mentioned in real estate ads promoting the locations of homes.”

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PPLT Trail Maintenance

PPLT trails assistant Emmett Purcell, left, and Helena High senior Ryan Seyler, right, plant a juniper to prevent a trail cutoff during a community trail work day in the South Hills in this May 2015 file photo.

Prickly Pear operates in two general spheres of land conservation: the often more recognizable public access projects, such as a recent fishing access site on Prickly Pear Creek, and award winning South Hills’ trail system, and the typically less well-known conservation easements that keep private lands in open space. The projects come from a mix of public and private funding and city, county, state and federal partnerships

In 1998, Prickly Pear’s first completed project was a gifted 122-acre South Hills conservation easement later sold to preserve open space and public trails. Later that year, PPLT facilitated a nearly 120-acre transfer from the Bureau of Land Management to the city of Helena’s parks system.

By 2001 Prickly Pear became the city’s trail system coordinator and just last year, the decade long Backdrop Initiative culminated with the city taking ownership of parcels on Mount Ascension Natural Park and preserving a link to adjacent public lands.

“That was another one of those dreams and a wide-eyed board saying ‘How are we going to do this?’” Krauss said of the Backdrop Initiative. “Bit by bit and parcel by parcel we were able to put it together and extend that natural park and the trails.”

One of Cole’s most memorable projects played heavily into her background in the mining industry. In 2002 Prickly Pear began work on acquiring 21 patented mining claims in the Wakina Sky area -- an effort that lasted until 2009 when transfers to the Forest Service were finally completed.

As the land trust has grown, it has continued to see strong community support and interest, she said, with growing user groups on the trail system.

“I think Prickly Pear really personifies Montanan’s strong personal connection to the land,” Cole said. “There doesn’t seem to be a ceiling on what we’re doing.”

The growth has not been without its challenges. Krauss cited the always rising cost of land and doing business as challenges, while Cole pointed to potential congestion on the most popular trails and promoting etiquette among user groups.

Land trusts vary significantly in size and focus across Montana, said Glenn Marx, executive director of the Montana Association of Land Trusts.

“It’s not accurate to say a land trust is a land trust is a land trust,” he said. “Land trusts have very distinct missions and priorities and some of them work in very distinct areas for very distinct reasons.”

Major state organizations such as Helena-based Montana Land Reliance have nearly 1 million acres of agricultural land in conservation easements. Missoula-based Vital Ground focuses exclusively on grizzly bear habitat and travel corridors. The Nature Conservancy works internationally and in Montana focuses on strategic land acquisitions and easements in areas such as the Crown of the Continent, Marx said.

Prickly Pear is among the community-based land trusts -- organizations such as Five Valleys, Bitterroot and Flathead land trusts -- with more defined geographic regions and often including trails programs. Community land trusts are typically the primary developers and users of open space bonds, which allows local voters to decide the value they place on land conservation, Marx said.

“My sense is when you’re a community land trust, you need to be really closely aligned with your community goals and aspirations, and the more closely aligned you are the more successful you’ll be,” he said. “Prickly Pear is a great example of a land trust that really serves their community and throughout Lewis and Clark County.”

As Prickly Pear has grown so have its marquee events, Krauss said. The Don’t Fence Me In Trail Run, scheduled for May 7 this year, saw about 700 participants last year. September’s Harvest Moon Banquet went from a small venue to packing the Helena Civic Center. This year’s events will include some special commemorations of the 20th anniversary, he added.

Prickly Pear is gearing for a big 2016, said Mary Hollow, who became executive director last year. But it is the foundation laid by those who first launched the land trust two decades ago that make today’s accomplishments a reality, she said.

“I feel for Prickly Pear the future is very bright and the sky’s the limit, and I’ve felt like that since the first time I interviewed for the job,” she said. “It’s because of the deep support for the community, especially when Prickly Pear was young and volunteerism is really how we accomplished what we did.”

Reporter Tom Kuglin can be reached at 447-4076 or tom.kuglin@helenair.com

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Natural Resources Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter / Assistant Editor for The Independent Record.

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