HELENA — After more than two hours of sometimes-heated testimony Monday, the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission voted 4-1 to purchase 2,992 acres on the Milk River Ranch north of Havre for $4.7 million.
The decision is the final step toward putting the entire 4,505-acre ranch — which includes about 10 miles of the Milk River and is owned by Verges and David Aageson — into public hands.
FWP will use the bottomland as a Wildlife Management Area; the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation purchased the ranch’s other 1,513 acres last month for about $1.1 million. The Board of Regents also agreed to pay $2 million to the Aagesons for the right to paleontological and archaeological artifacts on the land, bringing the total sale price to $7.8 million.
Commissioner Bob Ream noted how the ranch borders Canada, and how that country already has set aside large swathes of land as a wildlife corridor and habitat. He said that not only would this purchase add to their efforts, he’s also thrilled with the way FWP worked with DNRC and the Regents to make the sale happen.
“All in all, for the benefit for the state of Montana as well as in the long run, I think this is now an opportunity we can’t pass up,” Ream said.
Commissioner Ron Moody adamantly disagreed.
“I have listened carefully for new information that would change my view of this piece of business, and I remain firmly opposed to this purchase,” Moody said.
He adds that he admires and respects the Aageson family for their objectives for the land, as well as for negotiating with FWP in good faith.
“But as a commissioner I’m clearly charged with being an effective public trustee, to spend that money to the best advantage of the people who contributed that money,” Moody said. “I cannot get past the feeling that we need another appraisal. If I was making this purchase with my own money and this appraisal came in as it did, I would want a second appraisal.”
FWP officials had expected the land appraisal to come in at $2.8 million instead of the $4.7 million. In addition, they had anticipated using federal funds raised by the sale of guns and ammunition for the purchase; when that fell through they turned to the Habitat Montana fund, which comes from the sale of hunting licenses in Montana.
The purchase drained that fund, with new money for other projects not being available until the next fiscal year for Montana begins in July 2013.
About 70 people testified during the conference call hearing, with about 65 speaking in opposition to the sale of “stones and bones” and seven in favor of it, with one testifying the parcel is the “crown jewel of the Milk River.”
The majority of the comments came from Hill County-area residents, with about 100 of them gathering at a hotel conference room in Havre. Most were against the purchase, mainly based on the price tag, the process, difficult public access, the source of funding and the possibility that the land eventually may become home to bison from Yellowstone National Park.
Bruce Kapperud, a landowner adjacent to the Aagesons’ ranch, also wondered who will maintain the gravel and dirt road that leads to the property, as well as take care of weeds and other management items.
“It’s my understanding Fish, Wildlife and Parks doesn’t have the people or money to maintain this and there’s already a backlog,” Kapperud told the commission. “If you approve this I will not allow hunters on my land and others are saying that, too. So I’m figuring that’s maybe 50,000 acres that wouldn’t be allowed for hunting, and restricted from hunters.”
Sen. John Brendan, R—Scobey, who chairs the Fish and Game senate committee, called the property “stones and bones” and threatened to carry legislation that would force FWP to pay taxes on the purchase price when it buys property.
“This goes from 15th (on a FWP project list) to first,” Brendan said. “This doesn’t even pass the smell test.”
Vito Quatraro, with the Montana Sportsmen Alliance, said his group was asking FWP to extend the comment period in order to learn more about the sale.
“If you don’t, then we are in opposition to the purchase,” Quatraro said. “Montana Sportsmen Alliance strongly supports the acquisition of land by FWP to provide access and opportunities, but we want to make sure we acquire the best property for the money. What we see with this purchase are several problems.
He added that the land might make a good state park, but that money raised by the sale of hunting licenses shouldn’t pay for a park.
Yet others praised the purchase.
“This is important to conservation,” said Martha Kauffman, the managing director of northern plains for the World Wildlife Fund. “This is a unique opportunity to protect a long stretch of riparian habitat.”
Carey Schmidt, of Missoula, added that he’s enjoyed hunting on the ranch for the past three years.
“The deer hunting and upland game bird hunting is excellent, and when the elk are present it’s a great opportunity,” Schmidt said. “Lots of land gets locked up and it’s important for Fish, Wildlife and Parks to preserve this.”
The Public Land/Water Access Association reversed itself a second time, with President John Gibson saying that while they originally supported the project, then sought an extension of the public comment period, the group rethought their stance and now supports the acquisition.
“One of our officers is a land appraiser and tells me these kinds of appraisals go through serious scrutiny,” Gibson said. “To suggest it’s over-priced compared to something 50 miles away or down the road means nothing.”
Gary Anderson, a Malta real estate agent who had listed the property at one point for $16 million, said he had trouble coming up with a price tag for the ranch. He described looking at the parcel and wrestling with cost comparisons.
“I said this is historic, prehistoric, deeded land on both sides of the river. I said this is the crown jewel of the Milk River,” Anderson testified. “If this passes by on this trip it will be purchased in the near future at many more times the dollars you’re talking about today.”
Commissioner Shane Colton said he struggled with the project in some respects, but concluded that it would benefit Montana sportsmen and women. He said the rankings of projects are never set in stone and that criticism of the purchase is “a bit misplaced.”
“What’s difficult to determine is if the objections are to the proposal, to this administration or to FWP owning land,” Colton said. “I think it’s fair to say that the latter part is driving much of the discussion.”