HELENA – The state is looking at using a $40 million court-ordered windfall to buy thousands of acres of former Plum Creek Timber land from The Nature Conservancy — a notion some lawmakers think may be illegal.
The money comes from a state Supreme Court order that says PPL Montana needs to pay rent for the land its hydroelectric dams sit on. Part of that order included damages owed the state in excess of $40 million.
The Land Board, made up of the state’s five statewide elected officials, will look at the issue Monday. The Department of Natural Resources and Conservation wants to start evaluating about 55,000 acres of the Nature Conservancy land for potential purchase.
Back in 2008, The Nature Conservancy agreed to buy 310,000 acres from Plum Creek. The conservancy now wants to sell much of it to the state.
But some lawmakers worry the Land Board would be overstepping its bounds by spending the PPL money without appropriation authority from the Legislature.
“It is not legal, I don’t think,” said Sen. Debby Barrett, R-Dillon.
Barrett said she is not sure it’s a good idea either, pointing out the DNRC would need more staffers to manage the land.
“DNRC’s proposal is going to be bypassing the Legislature,” Barrett said. “Look at the fiscal future we have now. There are better ways to spend this than on more land that needs to be taken care of.”
The DNRC says that the PPL money — which has not been paid yet and could be subject to an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court — would represent a unique windfall. But the agency says it has evaluated similar types of payments, along with the broad authority the Land Board has over trust land and other issues in making its recommendation.
“We have undertaken a good deal of legal analysis. There are parts that some attorneys might agree with, and parts they might not agree with,” said Mary Sexton, director of the DNRC. “This is what we feel to be the best recommendation moving forward. Will there be questions from the legislators? of course.”
A full analysis of the former Plum Creek land has yet to be completed.
Sexton said that she would expect $40 million of land, if managed like other trust land, to generate about $2 million to $4 million a year.
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