No deal 

Bitterroot/Blackfoot land swap sunk by state

This week’s meeting of the state Board of Land Commissioners, better known as the Land Board, resulted in a 3–2 vote to once again deny approval for the highly controversial land exchange between the Sula area Miller Ranch and the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC). The outcome was far from certain when the hearing started, but in the end, State Auditor John Morrison joined Gov. Brian Schweitzer and Secretary of State Brad Johnson to kill the move, which has been characterized as pitting Ravalli county hunters against Lincoln County snowmobilers. While there is some chance the swap could be revived, it looks dead as a doornail for now.

Having attended virtually every Land Board meeting for the last five years, I can say that the scene in the Capitol’s revered Old Supreme Court chambers was one of the strangest in memory. By and large, these kinds of exchanges are arranged by the staff of the Trust Lands Management Division of DNRC and are then brought to the Land Board for preliminary and final approval. In most cases in the past, the often-complex details of the trades have been reduced to their simplest terms and the Land Board has generally gone along with the agency’s suggestions. Not this time.

The land being sought by the Miller Ranch is highly valued by hundreds of hunters of Bitterroot elk, mule deer and bighorn sheep—hunters who don’t want the state to transfer it into private hands. Their champion has been Victor attorney and Republican state Senator Jim Shockley, who has been a Bitterrooter all his adult life. When it began to look like nothing could stop the momentum of the land exchange late last year, Shockley came before the Board and contacted the governor’s office, fiercely arguing that the state was coming out on the losing end of a deal that would primarily benefit a large, out-of-state landowner and privatize an area treasured by generations of Montana hunters.

Now this may seem a strange argument for a Republican to make, especially in light of the Bush administration’s reckless attempts to privatize public resources, but Shockley has strong ties to the Bitterroot and a deep sense of duty to his local constituents. Shockley’s effort slowed things down, and before long fellow Republican Senator Rick Laible began to poke around—and he didn’t like what he found. Together, the two senators took the DNRC to task and revealed details that finally brought the swap to a screeching halt.

First it was the appraisal values, which both Shockley and Laible argued were too low for such high-value land—especially in the Bitterroot, where land prices are skyrocketing from week to week. In his testimony before the Board on Tuesday, Laible questioned the entire process and, as an example, said his research had revealed that $320,000 that had been offered by Miller after Shockley initially blocked the deal was referred to in state files as something “to sweeten the pot” as mitigation for the loss of hunting grounds. Contrary to the apparent belief of the Land Board, however, Laible said the money was not slated to go to the state’s school trust fund, but would be a “stand alone donation” to the department.

Laible also told the Board that he had proposed a compromise that would have trimmed the exchange to about half of the original 800 acres of Bitterroot land that Miller sought, but that he received no reply from Miller or his representatives.

Finally, Laible said legislators had been so disturbed by the project—and the process—that they would be asking the Legislative Finance Division and the Environmental Quality Council to hold hearings and conduct an investigation into the entire Land Banking program, and that legislation would be introduced to significantly modify the current law.

In a surprising move, State Auditor John Morrison, a primary proponent of the original Land Banking legislation, joined fellow Democrat Schweitzer and Republican Brad Johnson to deny approval for the swap. “When this first came before the Land Board,” Morrison said, “my first reaction was that it was the first time in my five years on the Board that I’d seen a transaction that pits one county against another—and it seems like it’s gotten worse.” Morrison added that he was disturbed that a compromise had been offered but rejected, and that “more and more people from Ravalli County are saying this is not acceptable to them. I don’t think this is the way to do it, and I’m going to vote against this transaction.”

In a refreshing counterpoint to so much of today’s political activity, partisan politics had little or nothing to do with the final decision. Senators and representatives as well as local county commissioners from both the Blackfoot and the Bitterroot had testified for and against the proposal, and elected officials from both parties on the Board voted to deny approval of the swap.

But the larger implications are yet to come. Both the process used and what appear to be legal conflicts concerning disposition of state-owned lands are at question and will be investigated prior to the 2007 Legislature. Given the discontent from members of both parties, it’s highly likely the same bipartisan support will fuel efforts to change the Land Banking law.

Ravalli County Attorney George Corn, an opponent of the swap, succinctly voiced the fear many Montanans are feeling these days when he told the Board to “not let wealth dictate public policy,” explaining that the Miller acquisition was for the sole purpose of “insulating a trophy ranch from the public,” even though the owner knew when he bought the ranch that it was surrounded by public lands.

It is unfortunate that so many state resources were burned up on the failed Miller land exchange—but in the end, the well-deserved scrutiny it generated may yet prove a boon to all Montanans.

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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