A Bureau of Land Management proposal to purchase more than 11,000 acres of private land along the Musselshell River in Garfield County has died after the government appraisal fell below the owner’s asking price.
The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation had attempted to bridge the buyer and seller, since acquisition of the land would have provided public access to an additional 9,300 acres of BLM and state land now inaccessible.
“We have to pay appraised value, especially with taxpayer-generated funds,” said Mark Jacobsen, BLM information officer in Miles City.
The appraisals are conducted by the Department of Interior’s Appraisal and Valuation Services Office. They assess values based on government standards. In the case of the Musselshell land deal, the AVSO couldn’t recognize the conservation value of the property in its assessment.
“What the government can pay is different than what it would get on the public market,” said Scott Haight, BLM Miles City district manager.
Instead, the AVSO based its price for the property on it being a working ranch with cattle grazing values, not the values of public land recreation, Haight explained. The “amenity values” of hunting and recreation weren’t recognized in the appraisal.
“Sometimes a property is valued for recreation, in that case we can move closer,” Haight said. “But this is primarily a cattle ranch operation.”
“We’re all really disappointed it didn’t work out,” he said.
Likewise, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation’s representative said his group was frustrated.
“RMEF was not satisfied with the appraisal process, the appraised value and the timeline,” said Mark Holyoak, senior director of communications and content for RMEF. “We worked with the landowners and the BLM for two years, and it is unfortunate and very disappointing that it came to this.”
The land purchase had been eagerly anticipated by public land hunters, since it would have provided access to a wide swath of BLM lands along five miles of the Musselshell River. It was originally hoped the deal would be closed before the start of this year’s archery season.
“We got a lot of calls,” Haight said.
Holyoak said RMEF has had issues with the AVSO’s appraisals in the past. He noted it’s not an issue isolated to Montana lands.
“We thought we were on a good path and it didn’t work out,” he said.
The BLM said, “Acquisitions provide opportunities for public access to public lands and for resource conservation and we look forward to working with interested partners like the RMEF on future access opportunities. There has been no change to any BLM parcels that already have legal access."
In March the BLM revealed its intention to seek purchase of the land when it published an environmental assessment on the Lower Musselshell River Acquisition Project. At the time, the BLM’s manager called it a “rare and unique opportunity to improve access into an area that is already a very popular outdoor recreation destination.”
The 73 Ranch, owned by Craig and Barbara Egeland of Rhame, North Dakota, was previously listed for $5 million. Jacobsen said the BLM could not reveal the AVSO’s appraised value. When listed, the ranch advertised its qualities which included trophy elk, whitetail, mule deer, antelope, abundant upland birds, wild turkeys and some waterfowl.
The RMEF had called the land’s purchase a “state and national priority” for the group because of its wildlife habitat and fishery.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was pursuing the purchase of 756 acres nearby, which are also owned by the Egelands. An agency representative could not be reached for comment on whether that purchase is still in the works. The acreage abuts the USFWS’s Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge.