Ochenski: At your service 

Moonlight with the DNRC

Did you know the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) has spent years scouring the state for property to accommodate the wishes of Hollywood producer Burt Sugarman, who wants to acquire 50 acres of state lands bordering his 135 acres and 3,000 feet of Whitefish Lake frontage? Do you think this is vital state business on which to spend money that could have gone to schools? Do you think more public land should go into private hands? Do you trust the Martz administration to protect your interests?

Now, I couldn’t pick Burt Sugarman out of a crowd. As far as I could see at Monday’s meeting of the state Land Board, he was just another guy in the room with thinning hair and a Hollywood comb-over—which makes sense since he is, after all, a Hollywood millionaire who owns land on Whitefish Lake.

Unlike most millionaires, who speak through the mouths of their lawyers, Sugarman was on his feet and irately reading from vilifying letters that had been sent to him by Whitefish area residents opposing his plans to acquire the state lands bordering his property. Saying the letters were not flattering to Sugarman or his intentions would be putting it mildly—in fact, it would be more accurate to say they were openly hostile.

Sugarman’s defense of himself and his 13-year part-time residency in Montana was vigorous. He pointed out inaccuracies in the letters, told the Land Board he had kept his land in “pristine” condition, tolled off his monetary and personal ties to the Whitefish community, and vehemently denied that he had any intentions whatsoever to develop the lands. Bud Clinch, director of the DNRC, related how Sugarman had made a deal with his department 10 years ago to pay the state to keep DNRC from logging the adjacent state lands.

As I said, I don’t know Sugarman, I’ve never been to his land, and I couldn’t tell you whether it’s “pristine” or not. Nor could I say how far his non-development promise would go should he decide to sell the land, or if it passed on to his heirs and assigns. But from a public policy point of view, it is interesting to note that Sugarman cut a deal with the department to spare the surrounding lands from logging nearly a decade before there was a law on the books specifically allowing such actions.

For 10 years now, the department has taken Sugarman’s money and gone off to log state lands somewhere else. For about $3,000 a year, Sugarman gets to look at trees when he visits his Whitefish Lake holdings—instead of the stumps and logging roads left behind by Martz’ “forest physicians.”

With the logging on hold, Sugarman lets it be known that he wants to buy the state lands adjoining his property. But outright sale of state lands is tough to accomplish, so DNRC tells staff to go find someplace Sugarman can buy and do a “land exchange” for the property he wants. The salaries, benefits, and expenses of the state employees are, of course, being paid for by public funds since they work for a state agency.

After searching the state, DNRC’s staff finally puts together what they think would be a good deal in Sugarman’s quest to obtain the surrounding state land. If he buys 80 acres of logged-over Plum Creek land near Tally Lake and a building out in Glasgow that is being rented by the federal government for $73,000 a year, he gets the state lands adjoining his property. Critics, however, point out that the building in Glasgow will only depreciate in value, while land prices in the Whitefish area are skyrocketing.

Ironically, DNRC used Sugarman’s request (and many others like it) as a reason to launch a study of what to do with 13,000 acres of state lands in the Whitefish area. The study, as it turns out, is funded with $60,000 “donated” to the department by two other non-residents with large Whitefish Lake landholdings (see “Community trust,” by David Madison, July 24, 2003). The Memorandum of Understanding between DNRC and the two California funders, which lays out the parameters of what the study will do, was signed by the state agency, making it a legal contract, before the Land Board even knew it existed.

Because the study is nowhere near completion, many see the Sugarman land exchange as a preemptive strike by the Martz administration to shift public lands into private hands. According to DNRC’s Director Clinch, however, Sugarman’s deal is just one of the things that was “in process” prior to launching the study, and the department simply decided to move forward with it.

In the end, the Sugarman land swap was rendered moot when, after his emotional reading from the vilifying letters, Sugarman unexpectedly told the Land Board that he is withdrawing his proposal—at least until the study is done.

State Auditor John Morrison, after hearing Sugarman’s impassioned testimony, said that most of the letters he received “stuck to the issues,” and were not personal attacks. In his close, however, Morrison cautioned DNRC that the final decisions on these matters rested “fully with the Land Board, not some state agency.”

No one knows what the Whitefish Study will eventually produce—or whether or not Mr. Sugarman will get the state land. Nor do we know what the Land Board members would have said, because the proposal was withdrawn prior to debate.

But some things are certain. Public policy on public lands should be made by the public in the light of day—not in secret memorandums with state agencies. That the DNRC, a state agency, took private money to cut a secret backroom deal once again illustrates the troubling tendency of Martz’ “lapdog” administration to put state employees, public funds and the wealth of our natural resources at the service of rich and powerful corporations and individuals—and ignoring the wishes of “the little people.”

When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Missoula Independent.

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