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Landowners in portions of northern Montana and Miles City should soon have a new neighbor.

On Jan. 26, Bureau of Land Management acting state director Jon Raby signed an agreement giving the state of Montana 2,126 acres to fulfill a portion of a debt owed since 1889. That was the year Congress passed the Enabling Act, which admitted Montana, Washington, North Dakota and South Dakota to the Union and gave states sections 16 and 36 of each township.

The problem was that some of those townships had already been set aside for national parks or Indian reservations, so the BLM inherited a debt to the states to compensate them for the lands. In Hill and Chouteau counties the BLM is turning over 2,120 acres of cropland known as Lonesome Lake.

That land, along with another six acres in Miles City, will satisfy more than $1.82 million of the BLM’s $4.1 million debt. The property on the west side of Miles City will save the state money that it has been spending to lease the parcel for a firefighting cache. The acreage is close to other government offices as well as the fairgrounds.

“We’re excited to get it done,” said Renee Johnson of the BLM’s Montana-Dakota realty office in Billings.

The State Land Board will have to accept the transfer at its next meeting on Feb. 20 in Helena for the deal to be finalized, said Shawn Thomas, administrator of the DNRC’s Trust Land Management Division.

The four BLM lessees using the Lonesome Lake lands were given notice of the transfer. The lessees were offered 10-year farming leases at a rate that requires a 25 percent crop share as payment.

The land was originally supposed to be a reservoir, but when that idea dried up the BLM got stuck managing crop land, which it normally does not do. The DNRC, on the other hand, oversees about 600,000 acres of cultivated land that benefits the state school trust, said Clive Rooney, area manager for DNRC’s Northeast Land Office in Lewistown.

“They were happy to give them back,” Rooney said.

“At least this first phase is done in a manner that’s beneficial to the school trust, the people farming it and to the BLM,” he added.

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Thomas said the Lonesome Lake property was high on the DNRC’s priority list of lands suggested for the debt since it provides a good financial return to the school trust.

Negotiation between the agencies began in 2015 when Montana gave the BLM a wish list identifying more parcels than was necessary to satisfy the debt, roughly 16,000 acres spread across Chouteau, Custer, Fallon, Hill, Prairie, Richland and Yellowstone counties. The deal was supposed to be closed by December, but the BLM has received a two-year extension to satisfy the rest of the debt.

The clock on that started ticking in November and will expire Dec. 1, 2019. Johnson said the BLM’s acting state director has made it a priority to make that deadline and get the long-term debt off its books.

“For me personally it’s been something I wanted to get accomplished,” Thomas said. “It will be nice to get it checked off and move forward.”

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Montana Untamed Editor

Montana Untamed editor for the Billings Gazette.