From its source deep in the Elkhorn Mountains, Prickly Pear Creek meanders northward through Montana City and East Helena and past Helena’s eastern edge before joining Tenmile Creek out in the Helena Valley. Though the Prickly Pear faced more than a century of degradation, pollution and rerouting, with a little help, the health of the waterway is returning. The communities along Prickly Pear Creek are also healing from years of pollution and economic disruption. The idea behind the Prickly Pear Creek Greenway is that the creation of a recreational corridor in and between these communities will serve to connect residents to their local environment, history, and to each other. Making these connections is an important step toward rebuilding and will aid in the longer-term recovery.
In 2010, Prickly Pear Land Trust began working with the community of East Helena and federal, state, and local authorities to plan this recreational trail system and maximize its benefits and connections for East Helena. With the transfer of 323 acres to PPLT in late 2020, this long-term project began in earnest, and the proposed trail will create pedestrian and bike-safe connections between schools, town and Prickly Pear Creek, before heading upstream and connecting to Montana City’s community trails.
Prickly Pear Creek is home to brown, rainbow, and cutthroat trout populations eager to be fished, while the watershed itself provides great habitat for many different species of wildlife, ranging from beavers to mule deer to songbirds. For decades now, places where the public can access the creek have been practically non-existent, but the Greenway will change all this. The majority of the proposed trail will be made wheelchair accessible, providing users of all ages and abilities a beautiful route away from busy highways. The Greenway would also provide a unique opportunity for residents, visitors, and students to learn about the area’s history, both human and natural. East Helena residents will have the ability to travel to school, work or shopping on foot or by bicycle, as well as new recreational areas for picnics and family outings, which will also draw in new visitors and businesses.
In 2015, Prickly Pear Land Trust was granted funding from the Natural Resource Damage Program to initiate a planning and visioning process for the proposed trail corridor. The resulting feasibility study was a reflection of significant public outreach with area stakeholders, private developers, and the public, and it found that not only was the Greenway technically and logistically feasible, but it was poised to provide multiple benefits for the three communities it would link: East Helena, Montana City, and Helena.
In 2019 and 2020 PPLT worked with federal, state, and local agencies and organizations to secure funding not only for the construction of the trail system, but for its long-term maintenance and management. In December 2020 after years of multi-partner collaboration, the Montana Environmental Trust Group conveyed 243 acres along the reconstructed Prickly Pear Creek corridor south of Highway 12 and approximately 80 acres along the creek near Kennedy Park in East Helena to PPLT. With funding and lands in place, the Greenway project officially began. Over the next couple of years, PPLT and partners will begin building trails and amenities, and work to secure additional, key properties and rights of way, to create an 8 mile trail and park system connecting East Helena to Montana City’s community trails.
The ASARCO Smelter was in operation from 1888 until 2001, and was the economic lifeblood of East Helena during that time. The many years of production led to contamination issues in the air, groundwater, surface waters, and soils in the area from heavy metals and other hazardous substances, however. Part of the bankruptcy settlement with ASARCO dedicated funds to remove contamination from the former plant site and surrounding area, with cleanup under the Superfund program beginning in 2010. Since then, much of the property has also been reclaimed and is returning to a more natural state with new vegetation growing along the stream and new wetlands where bare soils used to be.
To read the full text of the East Helena Smelter Draft Restoration Plan, CLICK HERE.
After closing to the public in July, Montana City’s primary access to the South Hills Trail System has reopened with an easement that will keep it public forever.
Help us connect people to our land
We need your voice. Help East Helena with a community trail! If you are interested in voicing your opinion to advocate for this trail system, please email [email protected].
Thank you for helping Prickly Pear Land Trust continue connecting land and people.