The fund Montana lawmakers approved during the 2017 Legislature to accept donations to purchase easements to landlocked public land has reached just over $50,000, according to the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. State officials are working to grow that fund so they can ink the first agreement later this year.
Western states, including Montana, have programs that seek to provide public access.
Ryan Weiss of the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation says most though focus on securing access to private lands, "To serve access to and enhancement of wildlife habitat and mostly game habitat for the purposes of hunting and fishing." He says funding for those programs tends to come from the sale of conservation, hunting, and fishing licenses.
Weiss, the public access specialist for DNRC, says Montana's program seeks to access public land that is inaccessible because it is surrounded by private land. The money to purchase those easements would come from donations.
"And I think the uniqueness of the Montana Public Land Access Network is it has a general outdoor recreation focus which could be considered more broad than just sporting activities like hunting and fishing," says Weiss who is charged with administering the program. "So there’s an element of flexibility that other outdoor recreational user groups will have the opportunity to have their interests represented when applying for an easement to public lands."
"I think this is the proper role of gov’t because it doesn’t force anyone to do anything," says Doane. "It protects the rights of everyone on both sides of the issue and it’s just a mechanism to allow people to come together in the middle and it allows free enterprise to work, a willing buyer and a willing seller."
Doane says he would not benefit from his bill as there is no landlocked public land near his ranch. He says there are incentives for those who do. Doane says landowners who enter into these agreements won't pay Montana taxes on the easement payment and they'll have flexibility to work on the terms.
"He can sell a temporary easement across that to the landlocked public land and he can try it out and see if it works. If that’s something that works for him and he likes it maybe he can renew that or possibly make that a permanent easement in the future," says Doane.
He says Montana will also give a tax credit for donors.
Governor Steve Bullock was officially launched the program around mid-December at the state Capitol. Doane joined officials with the DNRC to accept the first large donation from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.
"It was important for us to demonstrate to Montanans all over the state that organizations like the Elk Foundation are serious about trying to help provide solutions to these issues in MT," says Mark Lambrecht is the director of government affairs for the organization. RMEF contributed $25,000. "We wanted to put our money where our mouth was and challenge other organizations to do the same."
Others have done just that. So far, Montana Wilderness Association, Montana Wildlife Federation, Boone and Crockett Club, and Backcountry Hunters and Anglers all have opened up their checkbooks. Weiss says a few individuals and businesses have also donated.
He says there is now just over $50,000 in the account.
House Bill 597 is set to end in 10 years, unless a future Legislature removes the bill’s termination clause.
State Representative Alan Doane says the future of the program will depend on the public’s willingness to put their dollars behind the issue of public access.
"If this is a real issue and I believe that it is, donors will step in and voluntarily contribute money and this access easements will be purchased with this money," says Doane. "If it’s not an issue that people care about there won’t be very much for donations to the program and with the sunset date on it it will go away in a few years."
There are several ways to donate, including directly through DNRC’s website which also includes information on how to submit an easement proposal. Hunters and anglers can also voluntarily contribute when they buy their sporting licenses through the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
All easement access contract proposals will be submitted to The Montana Land Board. The board, made up of state's top elected officials, will make the final determination on those projects.