I have often been thanked for working on the formation of Prickly Pear Land Trust, on the occasion of the land trust’s 20th anniversary celebration; I would like to acknowledge the many good folks that aided in Prickly Pear’s birth. I could just say thanks and be grateful but I am keenly aware of how this was a shared effort.
The earliest discussion in which I heard mention of a locally focused land trust was in conjunction with meetings held by the “Lucky Ducks” (LCDAC, the Land Conservation and Development Advisory Committee) a committee appointed by the city. My recollection of who served on that committee: Bev Magley (chair) Lane Coulston, Sara Jaeger, Alex Swaney, Roger Petersen, Nancy Cormier-Granger, Dennis McMahon, and Heidi Youmans. Kathy Macefield of the Planning department and Randy Liljie of City Parks aided the committee in its work.
Starting in 1993, the group met and discussed the Helena Valley as a "bathtub" with the overflow outlet being the area where Highway 12 heads down onto the Townsend Flats. The group discussed growth patterns, the loss of access to public lands that was happening out toward McDonald Pass, in the Scratchgravel Hills, the North Hills, and the South Hills, issues with BLM and various mining claims on Mt. Helena, trail corridors along waterways and roads that would connect various areas (i.e. Spring Meadow to the Helena Reservoir), design standards for subdivisions, and trusts, and a variety of other planning issues.
My role was researching land trusts and providing organizational models to the group. As part of that effort, I visited Chris Boyd, founding director of Gallatin Valley Land Trust, who provided a great deal of material from his library and advice. The committee reached a point after about 18 months where it was favoring the formation of a local land trust that would reside under the umbrella of city planning and parks until it was on firm footing and able to stand alone as an organization. When a lone member objected strongly the committee decided to continue to study the issue of a local land trust. It was in this context that I went and registered the organization at the Secretary of State office.
The local land trust effort shifted to a volunteer effort to pull together a board to run the land trust. This work culminated with an open invitation to join the discussion at a meeting held at my house. This happened to coincide with survey work getting underway on the north slope of Mt. Ascension. At this meeting, people were introduced to the idea of a land trust and the need for one that was locally focused. Curtis Larsen was in attendance and was able to explain a great deal about the ins and outs of conservation easements. It was agreed that we would meet again and brainstorm ideas for board members. Ken Morrison offered to help with the organizational formation and bylaws. Over the course of the next couple of months the announcement of a large subdivision on Mt. Ascension galvanized one group into forming the Mount Ascension Neighborhood Association (MANA), the second group focused on the formation of PPLT. The people working on these groups intermingled and for the most part understood the distinction between the two efforts.
The MANA effort was led by Ken Toole, Russ Cater, Dawn North, Steve Gilbert, and Frank Crowley with help from many neighbors. Heidi, Curt, Nancy, Ken, Lisa Bay, Mike Downey and I, pushed the PPLT effort. A great deal of energy was put into keeping the two groups distinct as we began to identify potential board members, and began meeting with city and county officials -- understandably things got blurred as a number of the same people were engaged in both planning efforts.
The board recruitment effort resulted in Leo Berry, Judge John Harrison, Mike Gilleran, Bill Schneider and Curtis Larsen being invited to the formative meeting. The second meeting of the board resulted in the creation of an executive director position and selection of officers. Mike Gilleran offered to serve as secretary and all agreed to let the flip of a coin determine the president -- Bill Schneider won the flip and Leo Berry took on the vice president position. (The coin used was a nickel.) By the next meeting, Leo had recruited Tim Bartsch to serve as treasurer and I had invited Kelley Flaherty. At the next meeting, we were approached by Lisa Bay and others about purchasing a parcel of land in Oro Fino Gulch that could provide access to the Waterline Trail. So, within a short space of time the organization had an office, employee, and a mortgage without a nickel to its name, as I believe the nickel used in the officers selection "process" went back into a board member's pocket.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention who made all this possible. My wife, Ellen, sustained the organization financially for the first two years. In addition to the fact that we did not have enough funds to pay me -- she provided the funds to supply the office with furniture, a phone system, bookcases and cabinets, a computer system, subscriptions, software, mileage and memberships. By year three the organization was producing conservation projects and self-sustaining, but we never would have got there if she had not carried the cost of the work.
Prickly Pear Land Trust has grown to be a community treasure formed by the collective effort of engaged volunteers and cooperative conservation minded private landowners. The shared success is worthy of far more than just a happy anniversary wish, it deserves the community’s ongoing support and thanks. When Ellen and I visit Helena, we take great joy in recalling time spent with our daughters poking at ant nests, discovering spring flowers, and wandering the hills and trails -- for that I am grateful.