Local complaints failed to hold up the state Land Board during their Nov. 19 meeting, where board members unanimously approved the state’s purchase of the Milk River Ranch, though they hold out hope for the final step in the purchase, the Dec. 10 Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission conference call.
The 4,500 acre ranch is being split, with nearly 3,000 acres being sold to FWP for $4.7 million and the other 1,500 acres being sold to the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation for about $1 million.
Local landowners have been objecting to the sale, which they say is far more than the land should be worth. And a handful made the trip to Helena to let the land board know their concerns.
Kerry White, R-Bozeman representative-elect for HD 70, spoke for himself, as well as HD 33 Rep. Kris Hansen, HD 34 Rep. Wendy Warburton and SD 18 Sen. John Brendan, from Scobey.
White said the state should have done a longer and more in-depth study, an Environmental Impact Study rather than the Environmental Assessment that was done.
“I think this has kind of been put on the fast track, ” White said, citing what he saw as insufficient public hearings and communication with Hill County.
The price was an issue for most of the speakers.
Later in the hearing, Darlene Edge, a land conservation specialist with FWP, explained that the price was determined by Ted Thayer, 16-year owner of Bozeman-based Montana Comprehensive Appraisals Inc., who compared the sale to 24 similar sales, including nine with “recreational river pasture, ” which sold for $1,900 an acre. This is what drove the total sale price higher than the neighboring landowners would have expected.
Former Havre City Council member Bob Kaul also spoke at the hearing about his concerns for the future generations of Hi-Line agriculture, including his own ranching son.
“He has been trying to contact Mr. Aageson all last winter to see if he wanted to sell or lease any part of his land to run cattle on, ” Kaul said during the public input on the FWP sale. “He has never received an answer from Mr. Aageson. He has never returned a phone call. Period. To me, that is a little annoying. ”
“There is absolutely no way that a young person today, wanting to get into the farming and ranching business, can pay the same prices that are being paid by the state or DNRC or anybody else right now, ” Kaul elaborated during the later DNRC purchase hearing. “Who’s going to feed this country in 20 years if we continue to do this? It takes the young people in the state of Montana to rise up to the occasion and produce what we’re producing today. They can’t do that under the circumstances that we’re seeing here today. So my question is, what is going to happen your grandchildren, my grandchildren, great-grandchildren, if we continue to do this? There’s absolutely no way we’re going to feed the nation, let alone the world, like we have for the past century and a half. ”
Gov. Brian Schweitzer, the board’s chair, explained to the objectors that land prices have skyrocketed over the past decade, and that everyone thinks that other people are spending too much on land.
“There isn’t anybody in Montana who’s ever bought a ranch, me included, that, when you were signing the documents, you weren’t exactly sure whether you just did the right thing, because by definition when you buy a piece of land, you’re buying that piece of land for a little more than somebody was willing to pay, ” Schweitzer said. “That’s what a market is. ”
He also explained that the expected 3 percent annual return on this investment was better than most and in line with similar land board successes.
“This land board has generated more revenue for the school trust than any land board in history, ” Schweitzer said. “And this year we will have generated more money than any time in history, by a factor of about double of what occurred in the previous 20 years. ”
Hi-Line landowner Jim Warburton expressed his skepticism of the appraiser’s conclusion.
“The only problem I have is your appraisal value I think is still too high for this, ” Warburton said. “I know if I had any land imminent domained or went to go sell it to the Department of Transportation, you’re just going to pay market price. You’re not going to give me a premium, even if... I do have river property. You’re going to pay what you think it’s worth, not what this guy says it’s worth. ”
Schweitzer then offered to purchase all of Mr. Warburton’s land for $1,000 per acre. “I brought my checkbook, ” Schweitzer said.
The only person to speak in favor of the purchase during public comment was Helena resident and Lewis and Clark Conservation District Chairman Stan Frasier, who shared Kaul’s concern for future generations.
“I know a lot of the rural areas just don’t like FWP, ” Frasier said. “They don’t like them owning land, but the other 95 percent of the state population has a different view about that. We like public land. We like FWP management. And we want to be able to use those lands way into the future. It’s not just about today, it’s about our kids and our grandkids. ”
The board unanimously approved the purchase, pending the approval of the FWP Commission during their conference call on Dec. 10. Havre FWP Biologist Scott Hemmer said that all of the FWP district offices would be able to help the public listen in on and contribute to that call.