When we tally up the reasons we love living in Helena, the open spaces of Mount Ascension and Mount Helena are at the top of the list. It’s not only the trail system, which is one of the best in the country and recognized as such, but it is also the simple pleasure of knowing these areas are ours to hike and explore and will be that way forever.
Last month the final piece of a 10-year initiative was completed as the Prickly Pear Land Trust handed over ownership of four parcels -- 153 acres in all -- of land on Mount Ascension. These were the last of 14 parcels the land trust secured for the city of Helena in what was known as the Backdrop Initiative. The project creates a linkage of public open space from the neighborhoods of south Helena to forest service land south of town. It’s land that in the mid-1990s was primed for development and fragmentation, and now it’s forever preserved as a community and natural resource.
Many people refer to the immense trail system that crisscrosses both parks -- a trail system that has gained international fame. But take a stroll up any of the trails during your lunch break on any spring or summer day and you’ll find people walking their dogs, classes of kids from local schools exploring the natural world or even other lunch-breakers out for a little midday exercise.
The four parcels handed over to the city in December were the final pieces of an effort that really started in 1996 after the passage of the $5 million Helena Open Space Bond. At the time the Mount Ascension Natural Park and the maze of trails enjoyed by hikers, bikers and runners didn’t really exist. Today it is, along with its counterpart Mount Helena City Park, a shining example in Montana and the West of community conservation.
We credit the Prickly Pear Land Trust with spearheading this effort. We also give a tremendous amount of credit to the city of Helena and its leaders who were able to grasp a vision early on of what a resource these areas could become for a growing mountain town like Helena.
Former PPLT director Andy Bauer deserves acknowledgement because he really led the charge during his entire tenure at the land trust. He was able to envision what this project could ultimately become and what it would mean to the community. New director Mary Hollow carried the torch across the finish line, ensuring the final pieces were put into place.
It was the discovery of gold that spurred the settlement of Helena 150 years ago, but it is the access to such great recreational assets that will spur on its rediscovery by a new generation that chooses where to live and work based as much on community amenities as on salaries.
Helena’s economy has long been buoyed by government jobs, and we’re the better for it. We’ve largely avoided the large economic swings that other communities have had to ride through. However, diversification in our local economy is an important aspiration. That diversification is currently underway, as evident by the growth in manufacturing businesses like Boeing and Pioneer Aviation.
Also, as we reported recently in the annual Montana Economic Outlook, Helena is seeing a growth in high-tech jobs with companies who come here because technology allows them to operate anywhere and Helena’s amenities, including the close proximity to wild open space, makes attracting the best and brightest much easier.
A glance through the real estate listings demonstrates the asset these public lands are. Realtors promote access to Helena’s trail system and public lands as amenities and selling points for many homes across the South Side of town.
When visitors come to Helena and tour the Capitol, they’ll invariably look south and stare into the Mount Ascension foothills rising beyond the roofs of Helena’s neighborhoods. If they’re visiting from more urban cities, they’ll marvel at how close the wilderness is to our doorstep. What they won’t understand is because a community, with the help of a variety of interest groups, government agencies and funding sources, made it a priority to protect the view and the resource for all generations to come.