HELENA -- Montana’s Land Board on Monday 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 on the ranch 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 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 the purchase will provide a 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.
About half a dozen people testified in opposition to the purchase, with most of them coming from Hill County.
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 numerous 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.
Stan Frazier, with the Helena Hunters and Anglers Association, was the only member of the public to testify in support of the purchase.
“We like public land, we like FWP management and want to be able to use these lands in the future,” Frazier said. “Not just today, but in the future.”
The DNRC is buying the land to improve income to the Common School trust, and it will be an addition to about 3,000 acres directly adjacent to the property area. It will be purchased with Land Banking dollars, which is money raised by the sale of other state trust lands.
The bulk of the funding for the FWP portion initially was going to be federal Pittman-Robertson dollars, which are raised nationwide through the sale of guns and ammunition.
But FWP recently realized that because of the artifacts on the property it would be a lengthy process to go that route; instead the entire purchase will be funded through Habitat Montana money, which comes from the sale of hunting licenses.
Ken McDonald, FWP wildlife bureau chief, said Monday that Habitat Montana has about $6 million in it. After the $4.7 million is paid for the Milk River Ranch and $1.3 million is spent for adding 981 acres to the Seven Sisters Wildlife Management Area — both items on the FWP Commission’s Dec. 10 agenda — the Habitat Montana fund will be drained.
McDonald said that means some projects that they have obligated money for now have to be put on hold. In particular, he noted that the proposal to purchase a conservation easement on 22,000 acres of the Teigen Ranch in Fergus and Petroleum counties won’t be moving forward.
The Teigen Ranch was one of the top five priorities for FWP regional supervisors, who reviewed and ranked land project proposals in May at the request of the wildlife bureau.
McDonald said they should have new money in the Habitat Montana fund at the beginning of the state’s fiscal year, which starts July 1, but he’s not sure how much.
Dan Teigen, one of the Teigen Ranch owners, was disappointed that conservation easement activity is being postponed. He noted that the ranch is for sale, and he was hoping to get the easements in place in order to keep it open to the public once it’s sold.
“I guess it all comes down to priorities, and what the decision makers on the Land Board and FWP Commission think,” Teigen said. “There are pros and cons with the reality of the market. I have my preferences for protecting Montana’s heritage and my ranch, but I know there’s many pieces to this.
“But if there’s a delay, that adds to the risk of some oil billionaire from Texas coming in and buying the place, then sticking up no trespassing signs. We just are trying to retain public access and protect the habitat.”