Get it while we can 

Making land banking work for Montana

The cool nights are a sure sign that another of Montana’s short, sweet summers is coming to an end. For many, the passage of Labor Day means Montana returns to a more relaxed state of being and offers a chance for residents to return to their favorite haunts, minus the crush of visiting tourists. But Montana is changing, land prices are soaring, our valleys and foothills are filling with homes, and sooner rather than later we’re going to have to make a serious decision to invest in the publicly accessible natural amenities that are so vital to our quality of life.

Earlier this week Montana’s Board of Land Commissioners voted unanimously to support reauthorization of the fledgling land banking program. While it hasn’t made much news and is still in its infancy, the program was designed to increase publicly accessible lands by selling certain parcels of state trust land and using the resulting revenue to acquire other lands with better income and recreational or public-access potential.

The land banking program, enacted by the 2003 Legislature, was highly controversial when it was first proposed. After all, the state has some 5.2 million acres of trust lands, most of which were granted to it by the federal government at statehood to produce revenue to fund a variety of educational institutions. Some Montanans were justifiably concerned that allowing the state to sell its public lands would lead to a situation seen in other states, where trust lands were basically liquidated.

These concerns prompted the Legislature to include a number of safeguards in the land banking bill that limit sales of state lands to 100,000 acres total, require that 75 percent of lands sold be “isolated parcels” surrounded by private lands, and allow only 20,000 acres to be sold before the state has to invest in replacement lands. Moreover, rather than leap whole hog into a permanent program, the Legislature decided to make land banking a “pilot program” and inserted a provision to sunset it in 2008 unless extended by the 2007 Legislature.

The program got off to a slow start, to say the least, and as DNRC Director Mary Sexton told the Land Board this week, “it took two to three years just to develop the administrative rules.” Slow or not, the process is now underway, and to date the program has recommended 118,038 acres for sale and the Land Board has given its approval to continue moving 26,145 acres through the sale process. Total revenue to be generated by the sales is estimated by DNRC at $10,700,000.

But the program is less simple than it sounds. Isolated state lands in Eastern Montana are plentiful and opportunities to sell them to the surrounding private landowners are abundant. But land values in Eastern Montana have hardly kept pace with what’s happening in Western Montana. While agricultural lands are often valued at as little as $300 an acre, the price of recreational or timberlands in the western half of the state are skyrocketing. Just last week, for instance, it was reported that Gov. Schweitzer bought 10 acres of land on Georgetown Lake from Missoula industrialist Dennis Washington for a stunning $2 million—which comes to $200,000 an acre.

What that means, in short, is that you have to liquidate an enormous amount of low-value, publicly held lands in eastern Montana to purchase even a small plot in the west. A case in point is one of the first purchases to be considered under the land banking program, the acquisition of 40 acres abutting Lone Pine State Park near Kalispell at an expected cost of $550,000—or $13,750 an acre.

The financial drawbacks of using such a method to sell and acquire public lands are obvious, but the program also employs a rather involved and unwieldy process of appraisals and environmental and cultural/historic reviews that finally terminate in an auction and winning bidder. So what then is the alternative?

As we all know, cities throughout Western Montana have passed multimillion-dollar bonds to acquire open space lands on their borders. While these programs have been, in large part, successful, the money always runs out while continued maintenance of those lands adds to long-term costs and increases the tax burden for local property owners.

While there will be hundreds of ideas about how to spend the state’s current $500 million surplus by the time the next legislative session rolls around, perhaps it’s time to think about using a chunk of this one-time money for one-time purchases of public land. The need, especially in the west, is becoming more evident by the day as ranches, farms and timberlands are bought up and subdivided—or simply fenced off by new owners. The public-access fights, manifest in high-profile clashes on the Ruby River and Mitchell Slough, will most likely escalate in the future as more and more of the public tries to recreate on the same limited number of acres. The outcome, predictably, will be a slow but sure degradation of public resources from overcrowding and overuse, as is now occurring on the lower Blackfoot River.

Using part of the surplus for the outright purchase of more public recreational lands near our rivers, lakes and mountains would be a straightforward transaction between willing seller and willing buyer. Plus, it would eliminate the cumbersome process required by the land banking program and produce immediate results. To eliminate high overhead and maintenance costs, the lands should be left in a primitive, natural condition. And should some future fiscal disaster befall the state, we could always sell some of these lands and no doubt make a tidy profit.

To paraphrase Janis Joplin, Montana should get it while we can. We have an opportunity to maintain our high quality of life for present and future generations, the money for the investment is there, and make no mistake, the time to act is now.

When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at opinion@missoulanews.com.

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