Spring Meadow State Park

Connections between fort, park, and Helena neighborhoods a win for all

Summer means exploring our state, and at Prairie Populist we’re joining the thousands of Montanans visiting the amazing lands, lakes, and historical sites that make up Montana’s state parks. We hope you’ll check back all summer and join us as we explore what these parks mean for the people of our state and how they help make Montana a place unlike any other.

Located on the western edge of Helena, much closer to residential areas than the bigger lakes in the Helena Valley, Spring Meadow Lake State Park is a convenient place for a quick dip. On most summer days, you’ll find families splashing in the water, fishermen casting lines with hopes of reeling in dinner, and kayakers and boaters exploring the swampy backwaters, which are brimming with birds and nests. If it’s not too hot, there will also be plenty of walkers and joggers making the two-mile loop around the lake.

“It’s an incredible resource,” said John Phelps as he paddled around the lake with his granddaughter on a blow-up kayak.

Area residents who enjoy the variety of recreational resources at Spring Meadow now have even more open land to explore. Laced with bicycle - and stroller-friendly paths, a 180-acre parcel of flat, open meadowland known as Tenmile Property serves as a bridge between Spring Meadow and Fort Harrison, home to the Montana National Guard as well as the Veterans Affairs Hospital.

Once an uninviting plot of old rangeland, the area had been slated for 700 new homes. But ongoing talks between the Guard and Lewis and Clark County about how best to meet the needs of both the Guard and residents of the surrounding area led to a new approach — and a new source of funding. As it turns out, the US Department of Defense offers funds to create buffer zones around military facilities.

“Placing lands surrounding the Fort into a public land trust helps ensure that Fort Harrison remains a viable training resource for the Montana National Guard, and other military and law enforcement organizations, while expanding land access to the public,” Major Chris Lende of the Guard told Prairie Populist in an email. “The Montana National Guard brings nearly $46 million dollars to the Helena community, but as Helena grows, the risk of encroachment on the Fort threatens our future abilities to train.”

The Department of Defense provided most of the funding to purchases the Tenmile Project land. Helena-based Prickly Pear Land Trust (PPLT) borrowed the remainder and is now working with the county to secure money from its open space bond fund — established by local voters in 2008 — to complete the deal.

“More and more it became evident that that area … was one that would have great benefit if there were to be trail connections, community connections, along the creek,” said Mary Hollow, executive director of PPLT, which raised another$250,000 for the infrastructure, including a parking area and pit toilets.

The site’s multiple walking and bicycle paths connect a network of trails to neighborhoods that previously lacked such safe, easy access. With Guard soldiers and staff already using the facility for walking, jogging, biking, and commuting, the Guard calls the project a, “win-win.”

Another piece of the puzzle — and the solution — was Spring Meadow Resources, a community of group homes for people with disabilities that sits between Spring Meadow Park and Tenmile Property. Spring Meadow Resources gave PPLT an easement across its property, and, in return, PPLT built a wheelchair-accessible path and a bridge over Tenmile Creek.

With that piece in place, the trail system leads to the fort and joins with Helena’s Centennial Trail to reach all the way to Carroll College and Memorial Park near downtown Helena, and beyond.

The project is nationally recognized as a prime example of “community conservation,” the practice of making land more accessible to more people by engaging diverse voices in the planning and conserving the land in a way that also meets the needs of those voices.

Helenans have made good use of the Spring Meadow site for about a century. Once a gravel pit, it became a lake when miners hit groundwater and remained a local swimming hole on private land for decades. The state acquired the property in the 1980s, and added lawns, picnic tables, restrooms, and eventually the trail that loops around the lake.

Today, Spring Meadow is a popular recreation site for thousands of Helenans. School groups and nearby Montana Wild (an educational wildlife-oriented facility of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks) also use the site as an outdoor classroom.

“We have a huge diversity here — every sort of recreational activity you could imagine,” said Craig Putchat, the park manager, who, along with his small crew of seasonal employees, works tirelessly to keep the shoreline clean and park visitors safe.

Spring Meadow State Park’s manager, Craig Putchat

Much of the daily routine involves picking up litter, cleaning the bathrooms, clearing fishing line from the bushes, and ensuring swimmers and boaters know the safety rules. But, sometimes there are surprises. Putchat recently arrived at the park to find someone had tossed several picnic tables into the lake. Vandals had also damaged multiple sprinkler heads. His crew managed to pull the picnic tables out of the lake, but Putchat will have to draw on the park’s limited funds to replace the damaged sprinkler equipment.

Fortunately, on most days, the picnic tables are where they belong — filled with park visitors taking a lunch break before continuing their water activities. And just a few water toys float along the shore.

—Sanjay Talwani