Legacy Project 

Pushing the Potomac purchase

 A bill killed in committee that would have allowed the state to purchase about 26,000 acres of Montana Legacy Project lands found new life when legislators packaged it with a revolving loan fund designed to aid the state’s ailing timber industry.

Rep. Chas Vincent, R-Libby, introduced HB 674, which authorizes the state to sell $21 million in bonds to buy 25,700 acres of land ringing the Potomac Valley. The bill cleared a Senate committee 10-1 last week after passing in the House 98-2.

The first iteration of the bill, HB 14, introduced by Rep. Bill Nooney, R-Missoula, appeared dead on arrival early in the session, partly because bonding requires a two-thirds vote.

“There started to be some discussions about how we might be able to make it happen,” says Rep. Jill Cohenour, D-East Helena, “and the best way to do that is to try to tie it to something that everyone could agree on.”

Cohenour and Vincent hammered out companion committee bills, HB 669 and HB 674, as a work-around. The first bill sets up a $7.5 million revolving loan fund to help timber businesses, while the second means the former Plum Creek lands purchased by the Nature Conservancy will be conveyed to the state and managed—like most Legacy Project lands—for timber. The bills’ contingency language states if one bill dies, the other becomes void.

And as part of a compromise, the state must offset its 25,700-acre purchase by selling an equal amount of land elsewhere—likely grazing land in central or eastern Montana—through its land banking program.

Cohenour says HB 14 didn’t stand a chance because it came down to party lines. Combining the bills “squelched that thought process,” she says, “or at least brought it around to, ‘Yeah, there’s a reason why we need this.’ Because not only does the land purchase help the timber industry, but the revolving loan fund then backtracks and helps out with the state lands and fire suppression.”

Adds Vincent: “The fiduciary responsibility of the Legislature is to try to get a return on the investment, particularly when we’re talking about the state acquiring lands and taking it out of the private sector.”

That return, he says, will be more timber in Montana’s mills, money in the local school trust fund and intangibles like public access to the land.
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