PPLT was thrilled to complete the first major project of the Helena Valley Heritage Initiative in December 2012. The property formerly known as Aspen Trails Ranch, a 266-acre parcel slated to become a 435-unit subdivision, is now a refuge for wildlife, a place where agriculture can continue as it has for generations, and the first fishing access site on Prickly Pear Creek in the Helena Valley.
A conservation easement was placed on 230 acres of the property, permanently protecting them from development. There is also a provision for one future home site. The easement was purchased with funding from the Lewis and Clark County Open Space Bond from Mountain West Bank, who had taken ownership of the property after the plans for the subdivision were unsuccessful. PPLT then purchased the easternmost 36 acres of the original parcel from Mountain West Bank, and is working with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks to create the fishing access site. This parcel contains more than 1,500 feet of Prickly Pear Creek, as well as a spring creek, and is incredible bird habitat.
PPLT began reaching out to partners and landowners to start putting the pieces of the Aspen Trails Ranch project in place in early 2011. One of the key objectives was to preserve the agricultural use of the land, which led PPLT to the neighboring landowner, Prickly Pear Simmental Ranch.
“As ranches become more isolated in the valley, the Aspen Trails piece was important for us to actually to be able to expand our operations,” said Gary Burnham, co-owner of the Prickly Pear Simmental Ranch. “We were already leasing that ground, and wanted to permanently incorporate it into our operation.”
Located just north of the Helena airport, Prickly Pear Simmental Ranch was homesteaded in 1864, before gold was even found at Last Chance Gulch. The Burnham/Lichtwardt family has been on the ranch for more than 100 years. Beginning in the 1960s, Don Burnham built a Simmental breeding program that is internationally known, and his son, Gary, carries on this work today.
As beautiful as the land there is now, there is still some room for improvement. The old homestead that was on the creek parcel that PPLT purchased is actually where local artist Bob Morgan was born. Unfortunately, the farmhouse and other buildings went unused for decades and were beyond repair, so PPLT worked with Pacific Steel and Recycling, Dick Anderson Construction, Helena Sand and Gravel, and Lewis and Clark County to clean up the site before the parcel was donated to FWP. There are also significant plans for restoration on both Prickly Pear Creek and the spring creek in conjunction with the Lewis and Clark County Water Quality Protection District (WQPD). Several neighbors are also working with the WQPD to have their sections of the creek restored, so there will be noticeable changes happening on the ground in the years to come!
In addition to funding from the Open Space Bond and the cooperation of surrounding landowners, this project would not have been possible without the generous help of several other partners. A grant from the Montana Fish and Wildlife Conservation Trust allowed for the acquisition of the fishing access site. Geolex, Inc. generously donated the cost of the mineral survey. And funding from the Travelers for Open Land program administered by the Montana Association of Land Trusts helped to cover the other significant costs of this complex transaction.
The entire project is a great example of what PPLT wants to accomplish through the Helena Valley Heritage Initiative (HVHI). As word gets out about this project, PPLT hopes that it will act as a catalyst to inspire other area landowners to think about what might be possible on their properties. The four major goals of the HVHI are: to protect the streams and riparian corridors of the greater Helena Valley, to maintain viable agricultural lands, to restore fish and wildlife habitat, and to extend and link existing trail corridors where appropriate.