Sporting groups want Milk River Ranch comment period extended

2012-12-05T07:27:00Z 2013-03-07T19:30:07Z Sporting groups want Milk River Ranch comment period extendedBy EVE BYRON Independent Record The Billings Gazette
December 05, 2012 7:27 am  • 

Two prominent sporting groups are asking the FWP Commission to extend the public comment period for the Milk River Ranch acquisition until at least 2013, after learning that federal funding for the purchase fell through.

The Montana Sportsmen Alliance, which represents hunters and anglers, sent an email Tuesday to Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commissioners, saying they want the comment period to run until Feb. 1, 2013, for a variety of reasons.

In the event the FWP Commission chooses not to extend the comment period, the Sportsmen Alliance says it opposes the proposed $4.7 million purchase of 2,992 acres from brothers David and Verges Aageson. The property is about 45 miles north of Havre along the Canadian border and would be used as a wildlife management area.

“Montana Sportsmen Alliance strongly supports the acquisition of lands by FWP that provide additional access and recreational opportunities for the general public,” the group said in the email that Vito Quatraro sent to the FWP Commission. “Our concern is not with additional lands but instead that we are using public dollars to purchase the best properties available.”

John Gibson, president of the Public Land/Water Access Association, said his group initially came out in support of the purchase. However, like the Sportsmen Alliance, Gibson’s group became concerned once they learned that Pittman-Robertson funds — raised by the sale of ammunition and guns nationwide — no longer will be used to purchase the ranch.

Instead, when FWP officials learned in October that artifacts on the property might make the federal funding unavailable for months or even years, the decision was made to use Habitat Montana money, which comes from the sale of hunting licenses in Montana.

FWP officials said not only would it temporarily drain the Habitat Montana coffers — at least until next July — the Milk River Ranch purchase also would put three other land projects “on hold.”

“There was some confusion on the funding and we want to look at it again,” Gibson said. “In light of the fact that Pittman-Robertson money couldn’t be used for the purchase of the Milk River Ranch, that changed some priorities down the line.

“That isn’t to say we will not support it; we’re just asking the commission to delay their decision so we can evaluate it on the basis of new information.”

Not an unusual request

Bob Ream, the FWP Commission chairman, didn’t return a telephone call Tuesday seeking comment on the extension request. But Commissioner Ron Moody, whose district includes the Milk River Ranch, said they’ve regularly granted public comment period extensions.

“In my four years on the commission, delaying purchase processes for various reasons like appraisals and other details of the transaction has always been routine,” Moody said. “So I would presume that the commission would have to look seriously at the request.”

The Sportsmen Alliance, as well as Stan Meyer, an FWP commissioner from 1993-2001, had similar funding concerns but also raised other issues. They questioned the appraised value of the property, noting that comparable sales don’t appear to justify the proposed purchase price. FWP officials had expected it to fetch an appraisal of about $2.8 million; instead it came back at $4.7 million.

Meyer and the Sportsmen Alliance note that the Milk River Ranch acquisition ranks last out of 15 proposed land projects this year, which “has raised numerous questions as to the motives behind this proposed purchase.”

The Sportsmen say the proposal has been “fast-tracked” to close in 2012, without the proper vetting and that it lacks transparency.

“There seems to be legitimate questions as to the hunting, fishing and recreational value of this property with the obvious questions being ‘is the public getting the best bang for their bucks,’” the Sportsmen Alliance said in the email.

Meyer was even more blunt, calling it a “rush-rush deal.” He noted that the State Land Board voted on the proposal before FWP — which is opposite of the typical process — and that the FWP Commission set up a special conference call for Dec. 10 to vote on the matter instead of waiting for its regular Dec. 20 meeting in Helena.

He added that few, if any, Hill County residents have voiced support for the sale — mainly based on what they believe is an inflated price tag — and that sportsmen he’s talked to about the project are more interested in other purchases and conservation easements that are on hold.

One of those projects is the Teigen Ranch near Winnett, which is up for sale. Owner Dan Teigen has expressed interest in putting a conservation easement on 22,000 acres to allow hunting access.

“The sportsmen I have talked with are very interested in getting an easement on the Teigen property,” Meyer said. “It’s good for upland game birds, antelope and now it’s put on indefinite hold because those dollars are going toward the Milk River Ranch.”

FWP officials as well as some sporting groups have praised the ranch for its wildlife habitat and travel corridors, noting that it’s an important route between the United States and Canada. About seven miles of the Milk River runs through the lowlands parcel slated for purchase by FWP.

Owners’ tax concerns

FWP officials have said that they’re moving quickly on the ranch purchase because the Aagesons are concerned about increased tax rates. They note that all of the land projects listed each year are good projects, and 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.

The Department of Natural Resources and Conservation already has been given authority by the Land Board to purchase another 1,513 acres of the ranch for about $1 million. That cropland will be leased back to the Aagesons.

In addition, the area’s use by Native Americans stretches back centuries, and it also was home to dinosaurs. The Montana Board of Regents last month agreed to pay $2 million for the rights to archaeological and paleontological artifacts on the Milk River Ranch, bringing the total purchase price to $7.7 million in public funds.

A second appraisal done in September, which focused on the artifacts, put their value at $12.7 million; the Aagesons will donate back to the university the $10.7 million difference between the $2 million the Regents offered to pay.

The total $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, last week the 124,000-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.

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

(10) Comments

  1. bigskynative
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    bigskynative - December 06, 2012 6:35 am
    Paying three times the value of basically poor land (ever been to the milk? A few bad winters with no hay up by private ranchers to feed the deer and nothing is left) is a poor choice for public money. Funny how this came up and Mr Governor seems to have a personal interest in it.....
  2. Our MT
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    Our MT - December 05, 2012 11:38 pm
    Lefty & Righty, WE ALL AGREE this deal smells to high heaven.

    This land wasn't considered until Helena suddenly dropped it in the staff's lap.
    Staff ranked it as lowest priority out of 15 possible projects.
    Helena pushed it to #1, costing us the loss of more valuable and useful deals.
    With virtually no public or staff support the Land Board votes unanimously for it.
    That vote has generated wide spread public opposition and minimal support.
    After the vote they admit access to the property runs through someone else's land.
    Only later will an attempt will be made to try to gain access to this purchase.
    FWP drops a public meeting for a rushed tele-conference vote to limit input.
    The price is only 5 to 6 times above the market for rough rangeland.
    What is not to like.

    Someone in Helena (initials B.S.) hurried along this bad deal before someone is out of office. My guess is FWP will not extend public comment. This has been forced through too often for them to back off now.
  3. lefty the cowboy
    Report Abuse
    lefty the cowboy - December 05, 2012 9:37 pm
    What is MWF, Dave? If I have "buddies" there, I am unaware of it. Gibson represents Public Land/Water Access Assc., and is concerned specifically with protecting everyone's ability to access our publically owned resources. PLWA is not an environmental organization, or even a "hunter and angler" organization, and your position is one held dearly by very rich landowners, many of whom come from places like Texass or California with truckloads of money, who work diligently at privatizing public resources by closing public roads, and obstructing stream access. You obviously do not know anything about John's efforts or the specific issues PLWA involves itself with. In the spirit of honest disclosure, you should reveal your associations.
  4. chas michaels michaels
    Report Abuse
    chas michaels michaels - December 05, 2012 5:00 pm
    Eve Byron is one heck of an investigative reporter! Mr. Schweitzer has met his match! FWP needs a complete house cleaning and it will be very interesting watching them get creamed in the up coming session. Unfortunately many hard working FWP employees will take the brunt of the blame when it lies squarely on the Schweitzer administration and his buddy's who have completely destroyed the FWP agency. I think we are on the edge of a major revolt against FWP. Very sad. I just watched Otis Mule on You Tube. Those are some great video's.
  5. Dave Skinner
    Report Abuse
    Dave Skinner - December 05, 2012 11:37 am
    Speak for yourself and your MWF buddies, Lefty.
    Where was Gibson when Spotted Skunk was under way? And where is he now on the bison situation? The fact is, "hunter and angler" is code speak for Greens who happen to hunt, not knowing that as they let the hunter opportunities of others be destroyed in the name of the "enviornment" and landowner relations be abused in the name of access, the bottom line is when their green "allies" finally close in for the kill, there will be no one left to help defend those remaining. Kinda like throwing others in the swamp in the hope the crocs will eat you last, rather than doing the right thing and getting after the crocs.
  6. lefty the cowboy
    Report Abuse
    lefty the cowboy - December 05, 2012 10:14 am
    With a quick look, I have the same concerns, banger. Extending the comment period would give us time to get up to speed so we can offer meaningful input.
  7. lefty the cowboy
    Report Abuse
    lefty the cowboy - December 05, 2012 10:13 am
    Attacking John Gibson personally for asking FW&P for more time to consider a deal that has changed is absurd, and probably is rooted in other complaints. John has been a tireless protector of the rights of all Montanans access public land and water, and the only people who attack him are connected with shutting us out of our lands, in one way or another. We all owe Mr. Gibson a lot... certainly our respect and civility.
  8. Montanan67
    Report Abuse
    Montanan67 - December 05, 2012 9:04 am
    I feel it is a project that should be put on hold. Board of Regents should not be spending money on this when tuition is going up, The DNRC is getting off base with land acquisitions. This is all happening when there are bigger and better needs for dollars. Again the Land Board was and is unresponsive to the people of Montana. At the Helena meeting, the day they voted to approve, Montana citizens opposed it and they acted like there mind was made up to approve without comment. FWP is again running at there own pace without constituent concerns. All this is driven by OUR Governor. I would hope that the agencies would respect and listen to the people, it is time that WE demand it.
  9. Dave Skinner
    Report Abuse
    Dave Skinner - December 05, 2012 8:41 am
    Wow, I'm impressed with John Gibson's attitude. As long as the money was from "other people" and PR funding, he was fine. But now that it looks like Montana sportspeople might be directly on the hook, Gibson has a problem? Now, why is that?
    A ripoff is a ripoff is a ripoff.
    How many annual hunter days is this thing supposed to return for these hook and bullet bucks? Is the ratio as "good" as Spotted Skunk, er Dog? That skunk of a deal cost the Damage Fund $267 for each new hunter day. How much is a tag there?
    This deal, and all other "deals" need to be stopped, but with Schweitzer having appointed just about every player in this fiasco at one time or another, crony politics seems to be the rule.
  10. billy banger
    Report Abuse
    billy banger - December 05, 2012 8:32 am
    I understand that access is very limited and all photos do not show great habitat. Maybe the photos only show the breaks and a very dry area on the ranch. The winners in this whole deal appear to be the landowners not the public.

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