By Kellen Beck
A light layer of snow blankets the North Helena Valley, covering old mortar pieces hidden in long pasture grass. Spent 105 mm Howitzer rounds resembling foot-long rusting bullets decorate mantles all over the neighborhood. Live bombs have been retrieved from people’s yards, and still exist in land waiting to be developed.
“If this was located out East there would be a bunch of lawyers all over it,” Clifton Youmans of the Montana National Guard said.
Located only seven miles north of downtown Helena, the former military firing range now houses more than 500 families. They call it unexploded ordnance — or UXO — land because it contains residual live rounds. It’s an explosive piece of real estate. UXO areas exist all over the country but rarely are they found on private land.
After returning home from World War II in the late 1940s the Montana National Guard needed land for training, but its request for federal funding and leasing was denied. The federal government argued that because of the state’s vast amount of undeveloped land, the guard could easily procure firing ranges on their own.
Federal leases hold the government accountable for cleaning up after the military, but the leases signed with Montana ranchers did not define any cleanup effort on the land.
After the firing ranges were no longer needed, the Guard simply returned the land to the owners without removing the leftover ordinances. Originally part of the Chevallier Ranch, the North Helena Valley UXO area was sold to a contractor who began development in the late 1970s.
Jim Taylor lives on Diamond Springs Drive. He has decorated his driveway with an empty 105 mm shell resting against his mailbox post. His son, then 12 years old, found another round while playing in the woods behind the property in the late 1980s. The round was live, and Taylor immediately contacted the authorities.
Roger Nummerdor, whose son was also involved in the discovery, recalls the deputy sheriff simply wrapping the bomb in a blanket, putting it in his trunk, and driving away with it.
“[Today] they would probably have to call in the bomb squad,” Nummerdor said.
Diamond Springs Drive was the first area of the valley to be cleaned up in 1997 after digital geophysics showed the possible threat posed by UXOs. Twenty-four unexploded artillery rounds were uncovered on 220 acres. More than a decade later another 61 UXOs were picked up from a parcel of land just to the north.
So far, Youmans and his team of expert engineers and geophysicists from the Montana National Guard have spent more than $11 million to recover more than 150 explosive rounds. It’s tricky work because the North Helena Valley area brings the team so close to local homes. Extra caution is needed to make sure everyone is safe.
Even today the existing cleanup technology isn’t perfect. The machines miss things and pick up false signals, making it almost impossible for Youmans and his team to be 100 percent certain that every individual UXO has been recovered.
Taylor said all he has ever found on his own land were spent mortar bits. Youmans, on the other hand, considers ordnances hidden on developed land an imminent threat and is surprised no one has been harmed.
“I have actually taken explosive rounds from someone’s yard,” he said.
Until very recently funding was one of the largest issues Youmans faced cleaning up the North Helena Valley. It takes about $4,000 to clean up one acre contaminated with UXO. When Youmans asked the National Guard for funding to clean up the first residential area in the late 1990s, he received $165,000 for 220 acres — about $750 per acre.
Dismayed but not disarmed, Youmans invited a representative of the National Guard on a walk in the North Helena Valley one day. They came upon a live 155 mm round just sitting on top of the soil, out in the open and surrounded by houses.
“It scared the hell out of him,” said Youmans, recalling the reaction of his guest. His team now receives about $3.5 million a year. “Everyone accuses me of planting that round, but I didn’t need to,” he said.
Valley residents take UXO contamination much less seriously. Youmans recalls how the father of one of his team members would collect the live artillery rounds he found and place them about his lawn as ornaments. Virgil Kaisser, the worried son and team member, would go to the house when he knew his father was not home to collect the live artillery from his lawn. He then took the rounds to an isolated area set aside for counter charging the items recovered from the valley. Youmans said that’s where the team takes things that were “intended to go boom, didn’t go boom, so we make them go boom.”
Kaisser’s father eventually called the cops because someone was stealing ‘his decorations.’
It seems almost everyone who lives in the area has a story to tell, their own personal account of finding a UXO, or at least bits of one. But rather than threatening lawsuits, many residents of the North Helena Valley act as if their stories, as well as the objects they collect, have not detracted but rather added value to their real estate.