Amid questions, Milk River Ranch up for final sale OK

2012-12-02T23:00:00Z 2013-03-07T19:30:07Z Amid questions, Milk River Ranch up for final sale OKBy EVE BYRON Independent Record The Billings Gazette
December 02, 2012 11:00 pm  • 

The Montana Board of Regents has agreed to pay $2 million for the rights to archaeological and paleontological artifacts on the Milk River Ranch, bringing the total to $7.7 million in public funding being paid to brothers David and Verges Aageson for their 4,505-acre parcel about 45 miles northwest of Havre.

The purchase is being praised for the protection of wildlife habitat and travel corridors by sporting groups, individuals and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, which is expected to pay $4.7 million for 2,992 acres to be used as a wildlife management area. The FWP Commission will make a final decision on the purchase during a Dec. 10 conference call. The State Land Board already gave its unanimous approval to the deal.

The purchase of an adjacent 1,513 acres of the Aageson ranch by Montana Department of Natural Resources for more than $1 million is being touted as a benefit to schools, since they expect a 2.8 percent rate of return, or about $28,000 to $32,000 annually. The plan calls for DNRC to lease grazing land and cropland back to the Aagesons, and this also has been approved by the Land Board.

The University of Montana says the appraisal by a Seattle firm valued the archaeological rights at $5.2 million and the paleontological rights at $7.5 million, for a total value of $12.7 million.

But UM agreed to only pay the Aagesons $2 million. The rest of the value will be donated by the Aagesons to the university.

Emails show questions

People who live in Hill County are skeptical about the value of the land.

Internal emails among FWP employees obtained by the Independent Record reveal that some state employees also were surprised at the ranch’s appraisal. The emails show FWP employees scrambling at times to get the Milk River Ranch land purchase to decision-making boards before the end of 2012.

They also discussed whether they could immediately swap the property for state land elsewhere so as not to enter into another situation where they’re at management odds with DNRC.

“Nobody is opposed to the Aagesons selling their ranch, but they need to pay what it’s worth — about $900,000, not $4.7 million,” said Budd Cobb of Rudyard. “There’s no access, ravines are 400 feet deep and, if we want to be rude, when we see hunters, you just pull the trigger and everything will run to Canada.”

Neither David nor Verges Aageson has returned calls seeking comments on the proposed sale. But they had listed the ranch for sale initially for $16 million two years ago and then dropped the price to about $12.7 million, which equates to about $2,800 per acre. The listing touted the seven miles of Milk River that runs through the remote property, as well as the historical artifacts, as part of the reason for the listing price.

Appraisal comparison

The $7.7 million sale price equates to $1,709 per acre for the Milk River Ranch. If the values in the two appraisals totaling $17.4 million are taken into consideration, the per-acre price increases to $4,102.

In comparison, Tuesday the 123,000-acre Broken O Ranch, which spans three counties along the Rocky Mountain Front and includes 20 miles of the Sun River near Augusta was sold to a private party. The price was not disclosed, but it was listed for $135.5 million — or $1,092 per acre.

Rank of projects

Although FWP employees had toured the Milk River Ranch in 2008 to assess whether they were interested in it for the wildlife values, the process to purchase it didn’t begin until March 2012, when Rick Northrup, the FWP wildlife habitat section supervisor, sent out an email soliciting project proposals.

He noted the agency had about $2 million available from Habitat Montana money — funds raised through the sale of hunting licenses — for conservation easements or purchases.

On March 23, he sent out a scoring sheet for 12 projects that were submitted and then added three more projects that day, including the Milk River Ranch.

Jim Williams, a FWP wildlife program manager, as well as Lauri Hanauska-Brown, an FWP endangered species manager, wrote to Northrup and said the ranch property would score low since they only had a two-page real estate endorsement and a tribal letter recommending the purchase.

“The regional supervisors score them, but ask questions of staff first,” Williams said last week, adding that it’s not unusual for projects to not have all the necessary documents at first. “Sometimes you get a place holder and they don’t score as well, but when you get more information to review they do better.”

The proposed projects are weighted based on values to wildlife, proximity to other public lands, the parcel’s size, their strategic position, access, nonhunting recreation opportunities and building locations, among other items. With the limited information, the Milk River Ranch placed last on the 15-parcel list.

Williams questioned in emails why the Milk River Ranch was on the agenda for the FWP Commission’s May 10 meeting — an agenda that was set even before the supervisors had ranked their projects.

He wrote to Northrup in an April 24 email “What’s the deal with the Milk River Ranch being on the agenda. We have not had our call yet” on the priority rankings.

“It is a ‘top’ priority,” Northrup wrote in response.

The commission gave initial approval, with very little comment, on the purchase at its May meeting.

Ron Aasheim, FWP spokesman, said that it’s not unusual for lower-ranked projects to jump ahead of others in the process. Sometimes those projects are easier than higher-ranked ones; sometimes there’s a pressing need; and sometimes other factors come into play.

Darlene Edge, an FWP land agent, and others involved in FWP’s land issues added last week that all of the projects put forward on the list are important for one reason or another.

“All of the projects are good, but there are just some that are better than others and we only have so much money,” Edge said. “The Milk River Ranch wasn’t a priority, but one thing everyone needs to know is we have maybe 15 projects at a time come down the pipe; not all of them happen, for various reasons.”

Push to get appraisal done

On Aug. 14, Ted Thayer, an appraiser out of Bozeman, sent an email to Edge inquiring about the status of the Milk River Ranch. She replied on Aug. 22, saying she was “getting major pressure from the Governor to have the appraisal done by the end of September” and asked him to put the Milk River project ahead of another one he was contracted to conduct near York.

Last week, Edge clarified that it was DNRC, not the governor, who was urging her to move quickly on the Milk River Ranch project.

“It was indirect pressure that came down through DNRC because the landowners wanted to close. That was the whole reason for the rush,” Edge said. “Everyone feels the tax rates are going up on Dec. 31, and that’s a huge motivator for a lot of people.”

In an Aug. 28 email from Northrup to Edge, he brings up the issue of access to the property, which is a concern of Hill County residents. They note that Trevor Wolery owns about 630 acres in the middle of the Milk River Ranch, and the road to the interior of the property passes through his land. To get around it is about a five mile hike, notes Roger Lincoln, who lives in the vicinity of the Milk River Ranch.

“The river goes in and out of his property six times in his 600 acres, so that’s not access, really,” Lincoln said on Friday.

Scott Hemmer, a FWP wildlife biologist out of Havre, said that if the sale does go through, they plan on working out something with Wolery. But at this point, access is walk-in only.

It’s not just getting into the property that’s difficult. It also is about a 45-mile drive from Havre to the ranch on a gravel road that turns into a two-lane dirt road.

“When it’s really wet and muddy, that may keep some people out,” Hemmer said. “It can get pretty messy.”

In a Sept. 10 email to FWP members involved in the sale, Edge mentioned that Hemmer was working closely with DNRC to “discuss a grazing plan that would incorporate FWP & DNRC lands.” Northrup responded by asking why anyone was assuming they wanted to graze the wildlife management area.

Mark Sullivan, the wildlife manager out of Glasgow, wrote back on Sept. 11.

“Lots of political issues associated with this land deal — better to talk about it than through email.”

Last week, Sullivan said the “politics” he referred to had to do with grazing and the DNRC land.

“Do we put grazing on it right away? Others thought we shouldn’t, that we should wait to see and evaluate the land better,” Sullivan said.

By Sept. 24, FWP staff realized they had another issue to deal with. Typically, the FWP Commission would decide whether to move forward on property acquisition. The projects then come before the State Land Board for final approval.

But in this case, the scheduled Dec. 20 commission meeting followed the Dec. 17 Land Board meeting. Hugh Zackheim, an FWP land section supervisor, wrote that the late timing “would put us in a very difficult position to conclude the large number of year-end closings” that included not only the Milk River Ranch but five other projects.

“With that in mind, I’d like to propose that we schedule a Commission conference call on the afternoon of Monday, Dec. 10, for the sole purpose of final action on FWP land projects,” Zackheim wrote.

The public can go to FWP regional headquarters, the main office in Helena or the Havre office to listen in on the call and comment on the proposals. An agenda isn’t posted yet, but it appears that the “large number” of year-end closings has dropped by three for financial reasons involving the Milk River Ranch.

Finding funding

The latest purchase agreement for FWP and the Aagesons was circulated on Oct. 25, which is when FWP came across yet another stumbling block.

Federal funding might not be available due to the possibility that the archaeological and paleontological artifacts on the site “could impact the ecological values upon which we justify purchase of the property,” FWP attorney Bill Schenk wrote in an email. But, he added, they had included substantial limits on the scope of development and restoration requirements, so he thought they could work it out.

That wasn’t good enough for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, which would be distributing the federal funds to make the purchase. On Oct. 30, Meg VanNess with USFWS told FWP that because of the artifacts, they would have to undertake a full review, which could cause FWP to miss its Dec. 31 deadline for the sale.

“Clearly, it would also help if the next administration were to support the project,” Schenk wrote in an email on Nov. 2.

Meanwhile, though, the finished appraisal was given to Ken McDonald, the FWP wildlife bureau chief. It surprised almost everyone involved.

“... it came out significantly higher than was anticipated ($4.7 million actual vs. $2.8 million estimated),” McDonald wrote. He added that since it also looked like they wouldn’t be able to access federal funds in a timely manner, they would put three other projects — a conservation easement on 2,825 acres in Valley County known as Buffalo Coulee; a conservation easement on 22,000 acres on the Teigen Ranch in Fergus and Petroleum counties; and acquisition of Bar-K Ranch, which wasn’t on the priority list — “on hold.”

That prompted an email on Nov. 9 from Northrup to Kelvin Johnson, a FWP biologist who had worked on the Buffalo Coulee project.

“The Buffalo Coulee project is on hold due to the cost of Milk River Ranch, which was appraised as much higher than originally estimated — another victim of the MRR ...

“Sorry Kelvin.”

Sullivan, who was Johnson’s co-worker, also was disappointed with putting Buffalo Coulee on hold. In a Nov. 1 email to McDonald, who is his boss, Sullivan wrote that it’s “really disappointing that we will need to re-evaluate Buffalo Coulee. Region 6 has put a huge amount of work into this project. … “

Edge said that while those projects are on hold, they are still working on some of them.

Moving forward

The Milk River Ranch is described by some as an “exceptional” piece of property, used for centuries as a gathering place by Native Americans and by the dinosaurs before them. Tepee rings, burial grounds and fossils can be found across the landscape, and 10 miles of the Milk River flows through the parcel, which abuts Canada. It’s home to a prairie elk herd, swift foxes, pheasants and wide-ranging bird, insect and plant diversity. Hellgate Hunters and Anglers note the parcel’s “pristine ecosystem” and call it a “nexus of remarkable biological, historical, cultural and spiritual resources.”

Opponents generally believe the appraised value is four times what the land is worth due to its river bed, rough breaks, old river channels and barren cut banks. They also mention that Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s grandparents homesteaded next to the Aagesons and wonder about the impetus behind the purchase. The governor denies that ties to the land prompted the purchase.

A document known as a “decision notice” on the purchase for FWP, dated Nov. 19, downplays the likelihood of the Milk River Ranch Wildlife Management Area becoming a big draw for anglers. The document, signed by Pat Gunderson, regional FWP supervisor, notes that if hunting pressure increased, chances are deer and antelope would stay on the 2,992-acre wildlife management area, but “FWP agrees that hunting opportunity for elk would be limited and hunting pressure would likely result in the elk at least temporarily returning to Canada.”

It adds that several elk are “usually taken in the vicinity of this property each year. However, the elk hunting opportunity provided by this property would be sporadic.”

The decision notice also notes that the fishing on the property also probably won’t be much of a draw.

“The Milk River is a shallow river and water levels can vary greatly ... due to the location of the property and the proximity of the high quality fishery of Fresno Reservoir, most fishing occurring on the property would likely be associated with other recreational opportunities,” the document states.

In addition, the notice acknowledges that in the appraisal, the limited number of comparable sales for the area prompted comparison sales outside the immediate area, “which may have influenced the appraised value."

Still, the FWP Commission is expected to approve the Milk River Ranch purchase. Gunderson notes that while big game may move off the property — just like it does anywhere — it’s still a good purchase for a number of reasons.

“From a wildlife perspective, north of the (Canadian) border is all native habitat and as you come south, the majority of the uplands are plowed,” Gunderson said. “This is one of the few places with native habitat north of Havre. It’s good winter range for antelope and deer, and then a corridor for them to move south. It has a really good function.”

Copyright 2015 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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