Gov. Steve Bullock’s recent decision to close on the Horse Creek Complex Conservation Easement was a show of good faith for our family and the right decision for Montanans. This easement will protect valuable wildlife habitat and provide desperately needed public access in eastern Montana.
We started the process to develop a conservation easement with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) about two years ago. This was not purely altruistic, as we needed to buy five sections of land that sit in the middle of our ranch. An easement with FWP would help us do that in exchange for an extensive portion of our property rights, such as allowing over 600 hunter-days a year, public access for wildlife viewing, a new grazing system and many more restrictions.
We spent months revising easement language so it provided for the public access and conservation values required by FWP and the federal Natural Resources and Conservation Service, while still providing enough flexibility to manage a working cattle ranch. The FWP Commission gave the project unanimous approval. But the next week, our easement was tabled indefinitely by the Land Board. At that time, we had two land deals pending with the clock ticking on closing dates.
Concerns from the dissenting Land Board members Matt Rosendale, Corey Stapleton and Elsie Arntzen started with third-party mineral rights, which were already protected by law. Attorney General Tim Fox called their concerns a “red herring,” and this was coming from a professional who had reviewed hundreds of mineral leases as a private attorney. Despite that, FWP worked diligently with all concerned parties to add further assurances that the agency would not interfere with oil and gas development.
Then Rosendale and Arntzen moved on to challenge the appraisal, which was completed by one of the most reputable easement appraisers in Montana and has been reviewed twice by federal and state lands staff. As each claim against the appraisal was debunked, they reached for a new one. In the end, they clung to the argument that the ranch couldn’t have appreciated as much as it has, yet they had no information to back their claims. They wanted no information on the extensive improvements we’ve made to the ranch. They refused to even discuss it with us.
Stapleton referred to time spent on our easement as “dinking around” and “locking up” ranch land forever, and stated he doesn’t support permanent easements. But state law and the Habitat Montana program offer us that opportunity. Rosendale doubted the appraisal yet had no data to back up his claims. And Arntzen just said no, without giving any real reasons.
This process has left us feeling like our family and this easement were being used as pawns in a political game, rather than a project being evaluated on its merits. We have spent most of the past four months consumed with frustration, stress and worry. Finally, thanks to Governor Bullock and his diligent review of the law in regard to FWP easements, it is time to move on.
We are eternally grateful to the Montanans who voiced support throughout this process. The Land Board received hundreds of supportive emails, letters and calls, and we had countless individuals voice their support for this project to us personally. Hunting groups in full support of our project stepped up and made their voices heard. And in the end, it made a difference.
We learned throughout this process that Montanans really do come together. It’s what makes Montana such a great place to live — our sense of community. Maybe it’s something that anti-access politicians like Rosendale, Stapleton and Arntzen could learn from their constituents.