by Ben Lamb
Ben Lamb is an avid fly fisherman, big game hunter, and author who loves to spend as much time as possible in wild country. Follow him on Twitter @BenLamb1
There are few issues in the west as complex and convoluted as public land management. That’s true at the Federal level as well as the State. In Montana, our constitution tells us that State Trust lands are to be managed for the highest return to the trust (Like most other states). That directive in the past has been viewed as counter to conservation needs and has led to some of the more bitter battles related to access and multiple-use management. Today, recreational users must purchase a state lands access pass. Hunters & anglers must purchase a state lands hunting, fishing access permit as well. It also has led to the creation of cabin site leases as well as the land banking program that helps ensure public access to state trust lands.
Selling state trust lands to the highest bidder has long been an accepted method of ensuring that return to the trust, rightly or wrongly. That leaves both DNRC & the Land Board to make some tough calls when it comes to selling the public estate and advancing the public trust. When you add recreationally valuable land to the mix, things get even more complex.
Several DNRC Cabin sites have been nominated for sale by current lessees. These lessees want to purchase land that in some cases has been occupied by the same family for generations. That makes total sense. Most of these developed sites do not allow public access, and traditionally have been treated more as private property than public land in terms of management. They also carry a hefty price-tag with some appraised at over $300,000.
However, those weren’t the only lots nominated for sale. DNRC has nominated undeveloped tracts for sale on some prime lake-front properties as well as marginally developed lands who lease has expired, or gone into default. Those include lots on Beaver Lake, Lake Rogers & Echo Lake. A couple more parcels are located on Morrell Flats (Morell Creek). You can view those here: http://dnrc.mt.gov/divisions/trust/real-estate/cabin-home-site-sale
Having spent the last 8 years working on access issues in Montana, the amount of water front parcels nominated by DNRC for sale was striking, especially when you consider how much public access we are losing Northwestern Montana through subdivisions as the Jet Set gobbles up a larger piece of the Big Sky pie.
The question of whether or not DNRC can do this has been raised. Digging through MCA, here’s what I’ve found: MCA MCA 77-2-364 states that the agency can nominate any parcel of land for sale while MCA 77-1-301 & MCA 77-2301 state that the funds from those sales can be placed in the land banking account. MCA 77-2-308, however, gives the Land Board the authority to say no to those sales. So, yes, DNRC does have statutory authority to sell those lands and place the revenue in the land banking program. Even with the rewrite of cabin site leasing laws.
The concept of land banking is simple: You sell off parcels that are isolated or that generate less revenue for the state and replace them with parcels that offer better returns on the investment including recreational opportunities as well as better return on grazing, timber sales, etc. It’s a model not without faults, but has been largely wielded well under the last two administrations. It’s also a model that could quickly & easily change with shifting land boards and values.
Are these parcels worth selling and using the funds to purchase better lands which could open up thousands more acres or river/lake miles? After digging around for a couple of weeks, all signs point to yes. These bodies of water have adequate access and see heavy public use. Selling defaulted cabin sites & small tracts of undeveloped land so long as it results in no net loss of access is part and parcel of modern land management.
Furthermore, it’s important to note that DNRC recently closed on 15,000 acres of (formerly) Plum Creek Land around Seeley lake. By selling isolated parcels with no public access (which makes the land more desirable from a real estate/private ownership perspective) for top dollar, the state is selling high, and buying low, to steal a phrase from Wall Street. They’re getting more land which leads to more revenue for the trust and more recreational opportunities for our economy and our citizens.
While many conservationists rightfully raise a red flag on land sales, this one passes the smell test. Large-scale land swaps, transfers and sales rarely benefit the public beyond a onetime shot of capital into the Trust. The strategic dispossession of small parcels that have limited public use is a good method to capitalize on the state’s land-banking program and provide better access and better parcels of land for the trust when the opportunity arises.
During the last session, and briefly in 2013, some legislators had advanced the concept of transferring public land to the state, an unconstitutional concept that was soundly rejected by bi-partisan votes in many committees. Over 500 Montanans showed up on President’s day to voice their strong disapproval of the effort to eliminate the public from public land.
Montanans hold dear our ability to roam freely on the public estate. That includes State Trust Lands as well as public lands managed by the federal government and our lakes, streams and rivers. Kudos to those who bird-dog these sales, since they tend to drive a number of people to narcoleptic fits when they start down this often times complex and strange bureaucratic process.
Programs like Land Banking are vital tools for ensuring that these lands serve the people of the state, not just in their constitutional capacity for return on investment to the State Trust, but for the public trust as well.
Public Land and State Trust land management might seem easy for the sloganeers and the simple-minded, but it really is complex. Agencies don’t always get things right and citizen advocates as well as NGO’s who fight for access must continue to be a watchdog on government action. These sales highlight both the complexity of land management and the need for a strong, informed electorate who will analyze the data and hold our bureaucrats and elected officials accountable. If you still believe these sales are not in the best interest of Montana, you contact the Land Board here: http://dnrc.mt.gov/landboard