A meeting last week – meant to flush out an alternative to the proposed sale of a parcel of school trust land near Woods Bay – was by turns civil, heated and combative as east shore residents again made their opposition to the sale clear.
A possible solution, meeting both community concerns and the Department of Natural Resource and Conservation’s financial obligation to the state schools, remained murky though, in what looks to be a lengthy and arduous process.
“I hope we’ve made it clear that we are putting the current land banking proposal on hold while we look at other options to meet the department’s mission and the community’s goals,” Kalispell DNRC Unit Manager Greg Poncin said.
In March, the DNRC announced it was considering selling the 440 acres as part of the state’s land banking program, which is aimed at increasing revenue for state schools and improving public recreation access.
At a rowdy forum later that month, 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 property. The DNRC received more than 400 comments in the ensuing months, of which just two supported the land sale.
Poncin said the DNRC has “heard the community loud and clear,” but that the agency cannot fulfill its legal obligation to the school trust by leaving the parcel as is.
The state’s school trust lands were established in 1889, when Congress 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 and in 2006 those trust lands generated approximately $80 million in total revenue for state schools.
The land banking program, started in 2003, allows the DNRC to sell a piece of land and use the money generated to purchase another parcel somewhere else. The program is designed to help the agency fulfill its mandate to generate revenue for state education by eliminating isolated or non-revenue generating parcels, Poncin said.
The Woods Bay parcel is bound on all sides by either private holdings or U.S. Forest Service land, he said, so the DNRC doesn’t have permanent access to manage the parcel for timber, recreation or weeds. In the past 80 years, the land has generated only $17,311 for its beneficiary, Montana Tech’s School of Mines.
“People often view school trust lands the same way as other public lands, but there is one very important and distinct difference – that trust mandate,” Steve Frye, operations manager for the DNRC’s Northwest Land Office, said. “All other uses have to fall second to that mandate of managing that land to the maximum benefit of the beneficiary.”
What the DNRC was looking for at last week’s meeting were creative solutions to satisfy the agency’s financial obligations and the community’s desires. The purpose was at times lost as attempts to stick to a structured, two-hour meeting were quickly skewered and the public peppered agency officials with questions and comments.
Some ideas did emerge, however, including possible land swaps with the Forest Service, a “natural area” designation that would have a lease paid by a third party and a possible conservation easement that could be sold to a third party. DNRC employees also explained several other options, including land use authorizations like licenses and leases and forms of land sale such as exchanges or conservation buyers or developments.
A “natural area” designation seemed to garner the most support from the crowd of about 100, but it was unclear how funding for the schools would be garnered along with the designation.
The community agreed to move discussions forward with a smaller committee group and the agency said it would respond to requests for estimated costs of the various solutions.
Despite the controversy, Diane Conradi, a Whitefish lawyer familiar with trust lands, said the meeting was promising. A similar land sale proposal for about 13,000 acres in Whitefish six years ago was even more contentious, she said, before the community and agency agreed on a plan that provides funding through conservation and recreation, while keeping public access including an extensive trail system.
“I had déjà vu,” she said. “They asked the same questions we asked, basically how much is it going to cost for you to go away. But they were already at a better spot and were starting to come up with some excellent solutions.”
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