HELENA — The state Land Board approved plans Monday to buy a Milk River ranch on the Canadian border in order to expand recreational opportunities, despite opposition from neighbors who argued the deal was being pushed through with too little comment.
Two state agencies together will be buying the 4,500-acre ranch north of Havre for close to $6 million. Most of it will be managed by the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks for hunting and fishing, while the rest will be managed by the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation to generate money for schools.
The state said the land will provide tie-in with other lands to place a 40-mile segment of the Milk River under public ownership. The board, chaired by Gov. Brian Schweitzer, unanimously approved the plan Monday.
The state says the land will provide habitat for a variety of game animals, from pheasant to elk. It will help ensure a wildlife habitat corridor between animals north and south of the international border, while also preserving archaeological and paleontological history found on the Milk River ranch owned by Aageson Grain and Cattle.
The FWP portion of the deal, which will require approval from that agency's commission, is close to 3,000 acres and costs about $4.7 million of habitat money. The DNRC portion is about 1,500 acres, costs about $1.1 million and is contingent on the FWP buying its piece.
That DNRC will generate money for the school trust, primarily by leasing the land for agricultural uses. It expects an annual return of 3 percent on the land for the state schools trust.
But neighboring farmers and ranchers argued the state is paying too much and is pushing the plan through too quickly after first being publicly proposed earlier this year. Continued purchase of private land by the state sets a bad precedent, they said.
"To me, that is fast-tracking," said Robert Kaul, of Havre. "I don't believe that is fair to the people of Hill County. I don't think it is fair to the people of Montana."
Others argued the FWP portion of the deal gives more land to an agency that has struggled with weeds and other issues on its current holdings.
"We don't see a need for FWP to purchase more land when it can't pay for and maintain the land it currently has," said Jim Brown, and attorney for the Montana Woolgrowers Association.
Schweitzer argued that in the early 1900s, when the federal government proposed the creation of Glacier National Park, locals lined up opposed to it and argued it would harm the area economy.
"Go back to the Flathead today," Schweitzer said. "Find somebody who doesn't understand that Glacier National Park is now a national treasure."