Whitefish Trail and School Trust Lands

By Beacon Staff

Conservative. That’s how I would describe the way Montana has managed 5 million plus acres of public land held in trust for the schools and universities on Montana. While Oregon holds only one quarter of its original land grant, Montana holds 95 percent. These lands, particularly the 13,000 acres around Whitefish, provide valuable conservation, recreation and revenue for both the local communities and Montana schools and universities.

For 123 years, the State Land Board has resisted efforts of developers and speculators to buy up Montana’s land assets. Instead of selling, it has chosen to manage prudently by holding onto ownership of the land while generating revenue from timber, agriculture, grazing, mining and limited development. Last year, Montana’s schools and universities received about $65 million from uses on these important lands, with $55 million supporting K-12 education. Some of those dollars have come from the Whitefish Plan area from timber sales and recreation.

The City of Whitefish in partnership with Whitefish Legacy Partners has forwarded a proposal to the Land Board to purchase permanent recreation and conservation easements on approximately 2,500 acres of school trust lands surrounding Whitefish Lake. The recreation and conservation easements will be purchased at full market value. Under the proposal, the lands will continue to be managed for timber by the DNRC for the benefit of Montana schools. It is estimated that revenue generated from the proposed transactions will be in the range of $7 million, which will greatly increase the overall revenue generated for Montana schools from these lands.

The proponents of the easement transaction know that funding for schools is critically important. The proposed transactions will provide significantly more money from the lands surrounding Whitefish than the lands have historically generated. In addition, the ownership of the lands will remain with the state of Montana and continue to be managed for timber production.

The proposed easement transactions could be a model for the state in managing lands adjacent to suburban areas. The proposal keeps the lands in public hands, generates more revenue than ever, and preserves public access to the land in perpetuity.

Fred Jones

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