Helena city commissioners will consider the donation of about 72 acres from Prickly Pear Land Trust on Monday to be added to Mount Helena City Park.
On Thursday, the land trust talked about the years-long process to put the acreage off the western end of LeGrande Cannon Boulevard into public hands, as well as prospective management plans in the future.
“Obviously there are huge recreation values for this kind of open space so close to town,” said Mary Hollow, executive director of Prickly Pear. “But it’s not just important for the viewshed of the community and sort of the values for who we are and what we appreciate, but also the conservation of this open space allows the public in a more broader sense the opportunity to address some of the wildland-urban interface fuels this property has.”
Wildfire mapping identifies the property as a particularly concerning area due to its proximity to Helena and prevailing westerly winds. The land trust has also counted about six miles of trails that have developed over the years with future decisions to be made about incorporating those into a managed trail system.
The property was owned by the late William Whyte Jr., who had consistently allowed the public access along with his family, Hollow said.
“William Whyte had a conservation intent that ran really really deep, and if it weren’t for his heirs and their willingness to work with Prickly Pear on sort of seeing that legacy through, this wouldn’t have happened,” she said. “The family has been so open and gracious with public access over the years, that probably a large extent of the public thinks this is already public land.”
The property was listed by the estate in 2016 for about $4 million. The price was simply too high for Prickly Pear to attempt negotiations, Hollow said, as the family explored development options. But developing the property is logistically challenging for a number of reasons, including water supply and wildfire risk.
As the property remained on the market, former land trust board chair Ken Eden and his wife Liz sought to reinvigorate the project. The price became more attainable and they saw an outpouring of interest and private fundraising.
“I think once again the community support here is incredible, laudable and got the process going with a full head of steam,” Ken Eden said.
The Edens highlighted the history of the LeGrande Cannon area and the city park, providing past stories from the Independent Record.
A “Nuggets from Helena” column written by Mary Jane Bradbury last year details the history of Mount Helena, including extensive logging and overgrazing before 1900. In 1898 the Helena Improvement Society formed and set its sights on restoring the mountain. By the early 1900s trails were going up and in 1906, 10,000 Ponderosa pine and 20,000 Douglas fir seedlings were planted.
Along with private fundraising, Prickly Pear was able to secure funding through the Department of Defense because the property falls in the flight line to Fort Harrison, Hollow said. The land trust signed a buy-sell agreement in April and completed additional due diligence before Thursday’s event. Due to an agreement with the estate, she declined to specify the purchase price.
City documents say the property appraised for $1.589 million in March.
Because of the size of several major rights-of-way within the property boundary, acquisition of the 72 acres will equate to protection of more than 90 acres, Hollow said.
The city commission will decide whether to accept the donation during its regular Monday meeting.
Helena City Manager Ana Cortez spoke briefly about the issue at Hometown Helena Thursday morning. She was asked about the acquisition by an attendee, specifically whether the city could afford to manage the property following some recently announced budget cuts.
Cortez said that as city manager she was implementing policies set by the city commission, and that questions about those policies should be directed to city commissioners.
Mayor Wilmot Collins said he would need to call back after being contacted by the Independent Record on Thursday morning. Collins did not reply to the call or a later text message in time for this story.
Kristi Ponozzo, the new city parks and recreation director, said the city typically applies for grants to complete its open lands work.