Republican-led Efforts to Restrict State Land Deals Prompt Conservation Concerns

Despite pledges to protect public resources, administrative changes under Gov.-elect Gianforte and draft bills from GOP lawmakers have put some sportsmen on edge

By Tristan Scott
Somers Beach on the north shore of Flathead Lake as seen in April 2020. Montana State Parks, Flathead Land Trust and others are interested in turning the beach into a state park. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

When asked recently whether Montanans should worry about potential changes to their vaunted stream-access laws, which are hailed as some of the best in the nation, Gov.-elect Greg Gianforte answered unequivocally: no.

Similarly, the Republican Congressman and avowed sportsman didn’t mince words when characterizing access to Montana’s public resources as “an essential part of our way of life,” vowing to “keep public lands in public hands.”

And yet, despite his plain-sailing pledges on the subject of public access, the governor-elect and the state’s newly emboldened GOP have sparked consternation among some prominent sportsmen and conservation groups, who are forecasting a troubling new era of land management.

Much of the heartburn is due to speculation over the advisory team Gianforte assembled to help him select a new director for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP). The roster of advisors skews heavily toward private land and agricultural interests, as well as commercial hunting and fishing, raising the ire of state conservation advocates who say public resources are already taking a back seat during the agency’s restructuring.

“FWP is tasked with protecting Montana’s public lands and wildlife, which is why it’s exceptionally disappointing to see Governor-elect Gianforte’s transition team include public lands foes who value wealthy and politically connected landowners over everyday Montanans,” according to Jake Brown, political director for Montana Conservation Voters (MCV). “MCV will be paying close attention during the upcoming legislative session and will fight any attack on our public lands or wildlife.”

It’s common for state agencies to receive makeovers following the installation of a new administration, and since Gianforte won election as Montana’s next governor he has announced a series of transition teams to help lead overhauls to FWP and other executive agencies, including the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC).

“Everywhere he goes in Montana, Greg hears stories about state agencies, the whole alphabet soup — FWP, DEW, DNRC, DPHHS CPS, etc.,” according to Gianforte’s Montana Comeback Plan, which promises to move quickly to install new leadership at state agencies.

But Gianforte’s relationship with FWP is especially textured, and in 2009 he sued the agency over an easement that furnished public access to the East Gallatin River near his Bozeman home. In 2016, during Gianforte’s first campaign for governor, he chastened the agency at a gathering of supporters, accusing FWP of being “at war with the landowners in the state, trying to extract access” and “using extortion to do it,” according to Lee Newspapers. That same year, he told the Billings Gazette that FWP was being helmed by “political insiders” who he characterized as “environmental extremists.”

It’s a sentiment that’s been echoed by Montana’s Republican lawmakers for years — even as the opportunity to hunt, fish and recreate on public lands enjoys a high degree of bipartisan support, there is Republican resistance to conservation easements, which protect private land from development in exchange for cash and without ownership of the land changing hands.

Historically, an important mechanism for constructing the public lands puzzle has been through the targeted purchases of protective conservation easements under FWP’s Habitat Montana program, which is now more than three decades old and doesn’t draw on the state’s general fund for any of its money. Instead, it’s funded by an excise fee on hunting licenses, which in turn is used to broker conservation easements with willing landowners who also provide public hunting access, as well as fee title purchases of land with high wildlife values and for new fishing access sites, examples of which abound in the Flathead Valley.

Still, some Republican lawmakers say Montana should set aside efforts to acquire new land, including those that target preserving rich wildlife habitat through conservation easements, in favor of opening up “landlocked” parcels — the local, state and federal chunks of land that are surrounded by private property with no public roads or trails to reach them.

One of those Republicans is Rep. Matt Regier, R-Kalispell, who serves as co-chair of the Montana Legislative Congressional Sportsmen Caucus, and who this month introduced draft legislation to eliminate FWP’s ability to use hunting access fees to acquire fee title lands, which is the very lifeblood that allows the Habitat Montana program to function.

Regier says while he’s a proponent of the “user pays-public benefits” approach, which relies on the sale of hunting and fishing licenses and self-imposed excise taxes on firearms, ammunition, archery equipment, fishing tackle and motorboat fuel to fund state fish and wildlife management agencies, he sees a more pressing need to focus on landlocked parcels versus buying up more habitat.

“We have had problems with FWP and state governments using license dollars to buy ranches that don’t have access, or have minimal access, and that’s not the best use of dollars,” Regier said. “We should be using every dollar to increase access. Instead, we’re getting locked out of the land we supposedly own. Take the Cabinet Mountains [Wilderness Area]. We have 10,000 acres in the Cabinets that we can’t get to.”

Nick Gevock, conservation director for the Montana Wildlife Federation, agrees that Montana lawmakers need to look at ways to open up additional access to some landlocked public lands while still protecting wildlife habitat. But measures like the one Regier is proposing will hinder, not help, that mission, he said.

“In fact Habitat Montana projects almost always do open up additional access,” Gevock said. “Our wildlife management areas include adjoining and interior public lands, so the public access footprint of these projects is far larger than the acres purchased.”

“But this would ban any future land purchases,” he added. “We know that restoring wildlife and habitat through conservation efforts works, because we have been doing it for a century and it’s led to the abundance of wildlife we enjoy today. Montanans had the foresight to protect habitat and winter game range so that public land hunters can enjoy it today. This flies in the face of that foresight. The alternative is to do what they do in Wyoming and throw out alfalfa pellets.”

Ben Long, a local hunter and conservationist, said FWP’s proven savvy at negotiating complex land deals and facilitating private-public partnerships remain a critical piece of the public lands puzzle and are vital to protect future access for generations to come, particularly as the pressures of development reach untenable new heights.

“In an era where Montana hunters and anglers are watching their future access, winter range and other key habitat getting swept away by locked gates, subdivisions and no-trespassing signs, this seems shortsighted,” Long said. “I hope the Legislature takes the long view. The future of Montana is being set today.”

Gevock said a recent example of how the agency’s conservation legacy persists today is a proposal that would allow the state to purchase a new wildlife management area consisting of thousands of acres of elk and deer habitat in the Big Snowy Mountains near Lewistown, a proposal that hunters support, and which a legislative measure like Regier’s would undo.

“For well over eight decades, Montana has protected vital winter range for deer, elk and other wildlife, and the hunters of Montana have willingly stepped up and provided the necessary funding to pay for these land deals,” Gevock said. “We can’t lose the ability to continue to do that, because we would lose places like the proposed Big Snowy Mountains Wildlife Management Area and the incredible habitat and hunting opportunity it would provide.”

Another legislative proposal that would make securing new conservation easements more difficult for the state is being introduced by Sen. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, a veteran legislator and Matt Regier’s father. That bill, introduced last month in draft form, would “establish that easements are property for land board consideration.”

That means that a proposed conservation easement would require approval by the state Land Board, which is composed of Montana’s five statewide elected officials, who for the first time in two decades will all be Republican beginning in January.

Currently, state conservation easements on private lands don’t require approval from the Land Board, which follows a 2018 ruling by the Montana Supreme Court.

A local example of the FWP’s fee title program bearing out in the Flathead Valley lies on a half-mile stretch of Flathead Lake shoreline east of Somers, where access has been conducted through a handshake agreement with its private landowners. In an effort to promote both conservation and public access to the beach, FWP is proposing to acquire 106 acres of shoreline for the creation of a new state park, working in concert with the family that owns the land and a nonprofit organization, the Flathead Land Trust.

Rep. Regier said he supports the Somers Beach transaction, and that his legislative proposal would eventually make clear that its thrust is restructuring the state’s priorities.

Meanwhile, other FWP proposals are also underway across the state, including one to secure a conservation easement west of Kalispell, a deal that would improve access to thousands of acres of public lands increasingly under the threat of development.

“Montana outdoor families are facing more and more obstacles simply to get outside and enjoy the Montana they love,” Long said. “It’s a shame some legislators seem to want to add more obstacles instead of providing solutions.”

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