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As former land board staffers to a number of individuals who served on that body, we are having a difficult time understanding how Habitat Montana, Montana’s premier access fund, is being used in an attempt to increase protections for the oil and gas industry.

Habitat Montana conservation easements have opened up hundreds of thousands of acres of private land to public hunting while conserving some of Montanan’s best wildlife habitat & working lands. These easements were always celebrated by past land boards as ideal solutions to access issues that protected private property rights and family farming and ranching.

These easements help ensure that family ranches could be passed down to the next generations without saddling them with crippling debt or with price tags so high, that the only options were to subdivide; or for the family to sell the ranch to rich out-of-staters.

Real estate firms across the world single out ranches in Montana for elite buyers who want to own a piece of the west for themselves or for developers who transform once grand ranches into subdivisions.

That’s why Habitat Montana has been a huge success in its 40-year lifespan. The relationship between hunters and landowners can be rocky at times, but the solutions needed to help ensure a better future for both groups exist in Habitat Montana, a wonderful and wildly popular program. The Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks negotiates easements with willing landowners that help keep the livestock and farming operations thriving while protecting valuable wildlife habitat and increasing access for Montanans to enjoy the great outdoors. Those easements have done more to ensure Montana’s traditional way of life continues in the ever changing face of time than anything else done by our state government.

That legacy seems to be changing with this new land board unfortunately. The new members, Matt Rosendale, Corey Stapleton and Elsie Arntzen, are now demanding that mineral-right supremacy over surface owner’s rights be inserted in standard, legally clean easements.

It’s puzzling for a few reasons. First, putting this language in easements denies the Legislature its constitutional role to write and change law. Secondly, it chills the demand for easements through Habitat Montana if landowners have to forever give up any claim to being allowed a say in how development on private property can occur. Third, it would establish a precedent throughout the west that landowners who own surface rights, but not mineral rights (a common situation in western states called a “split estate”), could not place easements on their properties without approval of the mineral estate owner.

It’s time for this land board to stop playing games with livestock operators' livelihood and our access programs. If Secretary Stapleton, Superintendent Arntzen and Commissioner Rosendale cannot do that, then reducing the red tape and bureaucratic demagoguery going on with the land board by eliminating the courtesy of going before the land board for conservation easements is a sound and prudent measure.

If the new members of the Land Board don’t like Habitat Montana, it is well within their rights to lobby against Montana’s premier access program. That, at least, would be a more honest approach to the issue than simply trying to sandbag easements from a program they have opposed since their time in the Legislature.

Ed Tinsley was Land Board Staffer for Mark O’Keefe (State Auditor) and John Morrison (State Auditor). Kathy Bramer was Land Board Staffer for Nancy Keenan (Office of Public Instruction) & Linda McCulloch (OPI). Rusty Harper was Land Board Staffer for Linda McCulloch (OPI, Secretary of State). Jenny Eck was Land Board Staffer to Steve Bullock (Attorney General).

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