In a recent letter, Tony Schoonen of the Public Lands/Water Access Association discussed a very important topic: the role of the State Land Board in protecting and improving public access to public lands. While I thank Tony for starting this discussion, and appreciate his concerns, I disagree with his assertions about the Keogh Conservation Easement proposal.
The Land Board recently reviewed, and voted down, a proposed $213,000 easement on the Keogh Ranch near Whitehall. The money would have come out of the Habitat Montana program that is funded by hunting licenses. Because funds are extremely limited, and hunters’ conservation dollars are at stake, it is incredibly important that the Land Board maximize the impact of those dollars and get the most bang for those hunters’ bucks (no pun intended).
I opposed the Keogh Ranch easement because there are more effective places for us to use those limited funds. The Keogh Ranch already has an existing easement. On page four of that easement, it clearly prohibits changes to fencing, water, and land use “that would have a material impact on wildlife habitat or wildlife migration on or through the land.” Fish, Wildlife & Parks currently has the authority to keep this property from being developed. An additional easement wouldn’t have achieved any benefit to public access, wildlife, or wildlife habitat. Quite simply, there would have been no change on the ground to the public use of the Keogh Ranch with the new easement.
By saving $213,000 on a proposal that would have had no real benefit to hunters or the general public, the Land Board can now put that money toward other projects that would actually improve public access and hunter opportunities. Two examples of places where that money can be better spent are the Dome Mountain easement in Paradise Valley and the Spotted Dog Wildlife Management Area between Elliston and Deer Lodge.
For too long, the Land Board has simply rubber-stamped projects instead of thoroughly reviewing them to maximize the benefit to the public. That is beginning to change, and I thank everyone who provides oversight and input into our work. Even when we disagree over the relative benefits of a specific project, I think we can all agree that improving public access to public lands and opening up new access to previously closed-off lands must be a top priority.
I will continue to work with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, FWP, and other sportsmen’s groups to find ways we can actually improve access so hunters and recreationalists have more opportunities to enjoy the incredible lands we are blessed with in Montana. I would love to hear from anyone who has ideas or concerns about land management. My contact information can be found on the State Auditor’s website at www.csimt.gov.
Together, let’s create the best possible outdoor opportunities for existing and future generations. And good luck to everyone this hunting season.