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Governor Bullock wrong to eliminate Land Board oversight of conservation easement

Eastern Montana shadows by Loren Kerns, CC BY 2.0

By Toby Dahl

Governor Bullock’s decision to eliminate the State Land Board’s oversight of multi-million dollar state conservation easements is troubling to say the least.

No elected official should have the power to spend taxpayer dollars so casually, without any checks or balances. That type of power breeds corruption. That’s exactly why the Land Board exists in the first place—to ensure that big, expensive land deals are handled properly.

In other words, the Land Board was established in our Constitution to prevent sweetheart deals.

Here are the details of the specific land deal that lead to Bullock’s decision to bypass the Land Board—you be the judge of whether a sweetheart deal occurred.

The Horse Creek easement encompasses about 20,000 acres of ranchland near Wibaux. The bulk of that property was purchased by the Stenson family in 2011 for about $4 million.

The Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks offered the family $6.1 million to establish a conservation easement on their ranch—meaning that the family still owns the land, can continue to ranch on it, and could still sell the property in the future. They simply give up their development rights to the property, and have to provide walk-in hunting access to the public.

To establish the $6.1 million easement value, FWP relied on an internal property appraisal that valued the land at $10 million. The comparable property sales used to establish the value all included mineral rights—the Stensons do not own the mineral rights under their property.

That appraisal raised a lot of eyebrows. How does a ranch purchased for about $4 million more than double in value in just seven years?

That is the question other members of the Land Board started asking. For some reason, the appraisal was not provided to the Land Board at their meeting, and other information was incomplete. It’s no wonder the Land Board delayed action on the decision.

Rather than reconvene on this issue, Governor Bullock claimed he had found a loophole in the law and that he could unilaterally approve this deal without the Land Board’s consent.

But it’s all about access, right? In this case, the ends don’t justify the means. The state should not over-pay for property just so a few hunters and anglers have a new spot to hunt and fish. And in the case of this easement, members of the public who require motorized access will literally be locked out.

The members of the state land board who questioned this easement all support increasing public access. But they made a good point—the more wisely we spend access dollars, the more access we get.   Had FWP offered a more reasonable price for this conservation easement, they’d have had money left over for the next deal.

For a governor who talks so frequently about corruption in politics, you’d think he’d want to try to avoid any appearance of being corrupt himself. Eliminating the important checks and balances on multi-million dollar land deals is not a good way to do that.

Conflict in government decisions is not a bad thing. It means that those responsible for agreeing to the decision are taking a hard look at the facts and are trying to do right by those who elected them. The solution to conflict is not to blow up the process; it’s compromise. That’s what Governor Bullock should have done in the case of the Horse Creek easement, and it’s what we hope he returns to for future easements.