In a recent State Land Board hearing, three members, Secretary of State Cory Stapleton, State Auditor Matt Rosendale, and State Superintendent Elsie Arntzen, were right to support delaying action on the Horse Creek complex conservation easement. A final decision on the easement, granted in perpetuity, will affect a large acreage and multiple property owners, and it cannot yet be guaranteed that the property rights of the mineral owners would also be fully protected in perpetuity.
Herein lies part of the conflict surrounding the proposed 15,000-acre Horse Creek complex conservation easement to be managed by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. The Eastern Montana property is a split estate. Current surface owners who stand to benefit from this conservation easement do not own rights to the mineral estate below their property.
Without the ability to access and develop belowground resources, mineral rights are worthless. This creates a conflict made even more complicated when looking at proposed conservation easements where development has yet to take place.
In the decision notice on the Horse Creek Complex conservation easement, it states that public scoping notices were mailed to neighboring landowners, interested parties, county commissioners in Wibaux and Dawson Counties, and staff of the Department of Natural Resources Conservation and Bureau of Land Management. After the draft environmental assessment was released, direct mail notification was provided to the same parties. Not all mineral owners, however, were notified directly.
The issue of direct notification has been a hot button issue within the oil and gas industry for some time. Though notification was already required ahead of development, the Board of Oil and Gas Conservation, in 2016, promulgated a rule expanding direct notification to property owners within a quarter mile of proposed drilling operations. The goal of the rule was to increase transparency and public involvement of potentially impacted property owners.
Our concern with the Horse Creek easement is not all property owners were directly notified. Simply, mineral interests on split estates should be notified of conservation easement proceedings and given an opportunity to participate and comment.
No one testified against the conservation easement in principle. Everyone, including the Montana Petroleum Association, supported the conservation easement as well as the added access for Montana sportsmen and women. The motion to delay was to allow time for additional questions and gathering of information.
The time has come to stop rubber-stamping agency decisions and allow input from all who are directly affected.