Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Land Board delay raises questions about conservation easements as a public access tool

by Tom Kuglin

Finding a place to hunt on the two-thirds of Montana that is privately owned can be a tricky proposition.

Whether they are a result of changing demographics, financial reasons or convenience, stories of once accessible private property being shut off recur each year. While a landowner’s right to control access remains fundamental, hunters have increasingly cited the need for access as one of the biggest threats to the future of hunting in Montana.

One of the programs the state uses to push for public access is Habitat Montana, housed under Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks. The program is simple on its face: a portion of hunting and fishing license sales goes into an account, and FWP uses it to acquire access.
But for more than 25 years Habitat Montana, with funding going to both land purchases and conservation easements on private property, has had its critics.

Habitat Montana has been very well intended, very well conceived and been sternly if not unanimously supported by hunters and folks who want access,” said Glenn Marx, executive director of the Montana Association of Land Trusts. “But it has also always been at some level of controversy as it’s been implemented by the department, because it allows more government management to a degree on private land. There has always been a segment of the Montana Legislature and the Montana population who has concerns about more government in more places in more ways.”

The primary criticism of Habitat Montana centers on land purchases. FWP’s acquisition of entire ranches has met resistance to growing the state’s estate. In 2015 lawmakers took away FWP’s authority to purchase more land, restricting the account to private land easements. The purchase authority was restored last year but came with a continued legislative preference for easements.

Conservation easements are a contract between a private landowner and entities such as land trusts or government agencies. Easements come in many shapes and sizes, but typically landowners agree to limit development. In exchange, landowners may receive payment and tax incentives -- the incentives a result of depreciating the value of the property by agreeing not to subdivide. Easements may contain other provisions for public access or habitat conservation, and are often touted as a means of keeping land in agriculture.

State Board of Land Commissioners
Following unanimous approval by the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission, last week’s split-vote by the Montana State Board of Land Commissioners to indefinitely delay a decision on an eastern Montana conservation easement has raised questions about the coexistence of oil and gas development with habitat, hunting and agriculture.

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