Proposed Land Sale Draws Fierce Opposition

By Beacon Staff

BIGFORK – The proposed sale of a parcel of school trust land near Woods Bay drew heated opposition from neighboring landowners and local residents at a public meeting here last week.

The Montana Department of Natural Resources is considering selling the 440 acres as part of the state’s Land Banking program – legislation which is aimed at increasing revenue for state schools and improving public recreation access. At a Swan River Hall forum, nearby residents blasted the agency for not taking advantage of temporary easements to log the property and insisted the popular recreation area, which includes Estes Lake, stay public.

“I think a clear message out of tonight is that this can’t be allowed to become private land,” Edd Blackler, a Democrat running for the House District 9 seat this fall and one of the meeting’s organizers, said. “It’s an important recreation area that shouldn’t be developed.”

The state’s school trust lands were established in 1889, when Congress passed the Enabling Act – legislation that granted federal land to several western states for the purpose of generating revenue for public education. Today, the DNRC manages 5.2 million acres in school trust lands, leasing the parcels primarily for agriculture, grazing, timber harvest and oil and natural gas extraction. In 2006, those trust lands generated approximately $80 million in total revenue for state schools.

The school trust lands were opened to public recreation almost two decades ago, but according to the DNRC, roughly one-third are surrounded by private property, making them essentially inaccessible for recreation or land management. In 2003 the Legislature passed the Land Banking program to sell isolated tracts of school trust lands, then use the proceeds to buy new parcels that generate more revenue and provide public access.

Since the legislation passed, the state has sold about 26,000 acres, mostly in eastern Montana, and purchased about 24,000 acres, DNRC Director Mary Sexton said. Long term, the hope is to have more contiguous blocks of land, rather than isolated parcels.

“I think it’s been a win-win in most cases,” Sexton said. “So far all the lands we’ve purchased have public access and we’ve almost doubled our annual return on these lands for the schools.”

The Woods Bay parcel was singled out for possible sale because it is bound on all sides by either private holdings or U.S. Forest Service land and, Sexton said, the state doesn’t have a permanent access easement for it. That limits the state’s ability for timber management, and grossly decreases the revenue the property produces for schools – in this case, Montana Tech’s School of Mines.

Adjacent landowners challenged the issue of access repeatedly at last week’s meeting, saying they’ve offered DNRC a temporary, 10-month easement to log the property, but the agency hasn’t acted on it. Landowners originally denied the DNRC’s request for a temporary easement several years ago, but later agreed on a deal with a local logger.

“Saying you don’t have access, because it’s not the kind of access you like or want to have is completely bogus,” Stephanie Pointer, a neighboring landowner said at the meeting.

A temporary easement is a good thing, DNRC Kalispell Unit Manager Greg Poncin said, but it doesn’t solve the agency’s long-term dilemmas. “A temporary road use permit is a one-time-only kind of deal. In order to meet our mandate we desire a more permanent access. And it’s not just an issue of timber management; it’s weed management, recreation management, hauling garbage. It’s the ability to do our job, and we currently don’t have it.”

The Woods Bay parcel differs from most of the other parcels sold through the Land Banking program in that the public has legal access through the federal lands and frequently uses the site. “Because of that, this spot doesn’t seem like a good fit,” Bigfork Rep. Bill Jones, said. “There are only two people that can afford a piece of property like that: a developer or someone with world class wealth who wants to make a compound with a castle in the middle of it. I don’t like either of those choices in a place that’s heavily recreated.”

The DNRC employees emphasized that no decision has been made on the Woods Bay parcel, and that the agency is open to any creative proposals that can be brought forth on the local level, including trades with the Forest Service or conservation easements. The public comment period for the proposal has been extended to May 21.

The Montana Board of Land Commissioners, made up of Montana’s highest elected officials and chaired by Gov. Brian Schweitzer, makes the final decision on which lands are acquired and sold.

“The current situation is unworkable for us because we can’t manage that land and fulfill our requirement to generate money for the school, but the land banking solution seems like its unworkable for the community,” Poncin said. “So, now we just have to find a middle ground that’s workable for everyone.”

By the Numbers:
Statewide: 5.2 million acres of school trust land
Annual revenue from school trust lands for schools: Approximately $80 million
In 2003, one-third of schools trust lands were surrounded by private land and without public access
Since Land Banking program was enacted in 2003: About 26,000 acres sold and 24,000 acres purchased. State revenue on those lands has nearly doubled

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