HELENA -- Montana’s Land Board unanimously approved the purchase of the 4,505-acre Milk River Ranch for $5.7 million.
At least a portion of the purchase, however, can’t move forward until the Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission gives its blessing to buying 2,992 acres for $4.7 million for a Wildlife Management Area. That five-member board is expected to take up the matter during a conference call meeting on Dec. 10.
The Department of Natural Resources and Conservation will buy 1,513 acres from brothers Dave and Verges Aageson for between $1,069,226 and $1,1 59,083, depending on whether it’s irrigated. The DNRC parcels would be leased back to the Aagesons’ for cropland.
Mary Sexton, DNRC director, said it will provide an excellent 3 percent return on the investment, which equates to about $33,647 annually; most state lands provide an average of 2 percent return for the school trust.
The ranch, which is 42 miles northwest of Havre, 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. Teepee 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.
But others see it as a waste of money and wonder why the state is paying almost $5.8 million for the remote property.
Budd Cobb of Havre called it a “travesty for the state of Montana” and alleged that the sale of the ranch was a “done deal” regardless of public comments.
“Why are we paying so much for this land?” he asked. “… And then you’re going to lease it back to the landowner. Is that fair?”
Gov. Brian Schweitzer countered that it’s a valuable piece of property and that land is a good investment. He noted that agricultural land in Iowa has tripled in price in the past 10 years and, after hearing from many people in Havre who were opposed to the purchase, noted that people in Whitefish also were opposed to the formation of Glacier National Park 100 years ago.
“If I had the opportunity to buy a chunk of land like this I would,” Schweitzer said.