Seventy-two acres on the western edge of Mount Helena is now public land, and the city of Helena is wasting little time getting to work to mitigate wildfire danger near homes.
The city accepted the 72 acres formerly owned by the Whyte family as a donation through Prickly Pear Land Trust. The transaction formally closed on Wednesday and on Thursday city crews were on the property assessing needed work and beginning to thin trees and brush near homes that abut the property.
“This initial thrust is to get an ecological assessment of the property done and to begin fuel reduction next to residences along LeGrande Cannon,” said Brad Langsather, open lands manager with the city. “Then we’ll move to the areas south of LeGrande Cannon, our goal is to have the whole property thinned in spring of 2020.”
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Wildfire mapping identifies the property as a particularly concerning area due to its proximity to Helena and prevailing westerly winds. Ecological assessment work will include identifying which trees to keep, Langsather said, but other work, including trails and trailheads, will be considered in the city’s 2020 work plan. The city will also install a garbage receptacle on the property’s west end this year, he added.
Kristi Ponozzo, Helena’s Parks and Recreation director, told the city commission last month that the estimated cost for three years of maintenance on the parcel to be around $242,000. A significant portion of the city’s open lands work comes through grants, she has said.
In the near future, the city plans to hold a public meeting with area residents to discuss the work plan, but has not yet scheduled it.
The property was owned by the late William Whyte Jr., who had consistently allowed the public access along with his family. Prickly Pear was able to negotiate with Whyte’s estate to purchase and donate the property to the city. Along with private fundraising, the land trust tapped funding through the Department of Defense because the property falls in the flight path of nearby Fort Harrison.
The transaction means that the property, which was once slated for development, will remain in open space. 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.
Prickly Pear Executive Director Mary Hollow said Wednesday that the land trust was excited to see the project come to fruition. Both Prickly Pear and city officials have received many questions about plans and a timeline for work on the property since the project’s announcement.
“We’ve been getting a lot of calls, a lot of people asking when the city is going to start thinning,” she said. “So (Thursday) it is public land and people will start to see city crews and staff up there doing some flagging and starting to do some thinning.”
Hollow says the project will be a fitting highlight of a celebration next week on the Walking Mall honoring 20 years of acquisitions in Helena’s South Hills.