Money matters, but it’s only “half of the equation” when the State Land Board renews grazing leases, ruled State District Judge Jeffrey Sherlock on July 15. The board should also have the ability to consider impact on the land, Sherlock wrote.
Historically, “preference rights” have served to grandfather-in lease holders as long as they were willing to match the highest bid. (Bids could later be renegotiated.) But that “preference right,” ruled Sherlock, is unconstitutional because it “diminishes the Land Board’s duty as trustee of school lands to administer [land] in a manner most beneficial to the trust estate.” The State Land Board oversees 5.2 million acres of public land that generate revenue for public schools. About 4 million acres are leased, estimates Bud Clinch, director of the Department of Natural Resource and Conservation.
Though he sometimes wears cowboy boots, William Broadbent, plaintiff in the suit, did not have a “preference right.” When the lease for a 640-acre parcel adjacent to his Geyser-area ranch came up for 10-year renewal, he applied. Broadbent offered at least four times the amount that had previously been paid. He also planned to run fewer cattle on the land. Because his neighbors, the Harlows, had a “preference right,” however, Broadbent was denied the lease.
Of the 6,000 or so lessees in Montana, “virtually 99 percent” ranch, says Clinch. Broadbent, however, was criticized for not having cows. He had “rested” his land for several years, explains his attorney, Harley Harris, and at least half of his ranch is in a conservation easement.
The Montana Stockgrowers Association (MSA), which represents about 2,000 ranchers, is afraid that not giving the historical lease holder preference will compromise the land, says Steve Pilcher, MSA executive vice president. Because ranchers have come to expect lease renewals, they have added incentive to care for the land and, at times, invest in costly improvements, he says.
The Land Board’s decision to reissue the lease to the Harlows has been reversed and remanded. The Land Board is charged with determining the best lessee for the land, irrespective of the unconstitutional “preference right.” Once filed, Sherlock’s decision may be appealed.