Land Board Moves Ahead with Cabin Lease Plan

By Beacon Staff

HELENA — The Land Board agreed Monday to roll back a scheduled increase on leases for state-land cabin sites.

The state has been struggling for several years to establish a new method of setting rates for the prized sites. The Land Board finalized new rules that reduced a scheduled increase in order to comply with legislative action on the matter.

Still, both sides in the debate voiced displeasure.

The leaseholders said the state still is asking too much, and will be forcing some of them to abandon properties. They argued the Land Board, which oversees land management by the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, was not accurately implementing the legislation from earlier this year that forced them to revisit the issue and reduce the rates.

But the colleges that get the revenue countered that the Land Board was breaking with past court decisions by not charging full market value. The higher education system has threatened another lawsuit over the matter.

The DNRC, which is charged with maximizing revenue from state land, said it was difficult to find a balance between the competing interests.

“I have to say, I think both sides are going to be unhappy because this is a very difficult needle to thread,” said agency director Mary Sexton.

The board first increased the rates last year, saying they for too long had sat dormant and were far below market value for the land. But the Legislature intervened at the behest of leaseholders, and ordered a review that led ultimately to Monday’s action.

The DNRC estimated that under the new system, when fully implemented in 2013, the state will collect about $1.6 million in 2013 from about 800 cabin sites the state leases. The state had expected $2.7 million.

The board also finalized new 50-year conservation rules to guide logging and other projects on state-owned land.

Sexton said the deal allows the agency to move forward with land management without having to continually seek federal approval under endangered species laws. In return, the state promises to abide by the conservation agreement that specifies how it will construct roads and evaluate risks to habitat.

Sexton called it a “landmark deal” that balances conservation with timber harvests and other activities that raise money for state schools. She said the plan has been in the works since 2002.

Environmentalists complained the conservation deal for endangered species on state land did far too little to protect animals. Environmentalists argue it allows too much road-building for logging and other projects on the 500,000 acres of land owned by the state by prioritizing revenue generation.

“We have some serious problems remaining with the plan,” said Steve Kelly, with Friends of the Wild Swan. “We feel there are too many loopholes, too many exceptions and exemptions.”

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