HELENA — Gov. Brian Schweitzer is shrugging off a judge's decision to temporarily block the use of university money in a state deal to buy a Milk River ranch for public recreation.
A Gallatin County District Court on Thursday sided with opponents of the deal trying to block the use of $2 million in university money toward the state's purchase of the Aageson Ranch in Hill County in north-central Montana.
Overall, state agencies led by Fish, Wildlife and Parks are paying nearly $8 million for roughly 4,500 acres.
The judge is blocking the university system from contributing $900,000 for the deal until legal arguments can be made by opponents who argue lawmakers never appropriated money for that purpose. The universities have agreed themselves not to spend $1.1 million of the disputed money on the deal, said state Sen. Art Wittich, a Bozeman attorney who filed the lawsuit.
Schweitzer said Friday that a temporary restraining order is easy to get and doesn't mean the deal will ultimately be blocked. He indicated the university's share could come from elsewhere, since it was money that was earmarked for archaeological assets found on the ranch.
"If the university isn't going to get access to the dinosaur bones and the Indian artifacts, that makes it completely available to sell them to someone else," Schweitzer said.
Critics said the Schweitzer administration is pushing the last-minute deal through and paying too much. Republicans suspect the governor is buying the ranch as a favor to political allies, a charge the administration has dismissed.
Wittich said that the Legislature intended the money be used for improving research on campus, not for buying land.
"My goal is to protect the integrity of the university research appropriation," Wittich said.
Others in the case are neighboring ranch owner Daniel Redding and state Sen. John Brenden, of Scobey.
Last month, the state Land Board approved the plans, despite complaints from neighboring landowners that the state is paying too much and it is being fast-tracked after first being made public earlier this year. Continued purchase of private land by the state sets a bad precedent, they argued.
The state said most of the ranch will be managed by the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks for hunting and fishing, while the rest will be managed by the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation to generate money for schools.