BLM prepares to return $4 m in land to state of Montana | TSLN.com

BLM prepares to return $4 m in land to state of Montana

Tamara Choat
for Tri-State Livestock News

The state of Montana is expected to take ownership of around 10,000 acres of BLM land to settle obligations under the Enabling Act of 1889 which granted the state sections 16 and 36 in each township. Photo by Tamara Choat

It's not often the federal government declares an initiative to transfer public lands back to the state.

However, the Bureau of Land Management wants to settle its debts to the state of Montana, and they still owe it 1,184.16 acres from 127 years ago. They plan to hold comment periods starting in December to determine which BLM tracts will be transferred to the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.

The obligation dates back to the Enabling Act of 1889, under which Washington, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Montana were admitted to the Union and granted sections 16 and 36 of every township. However, some of those designated sections, referred to as "base lands" were already claimed in private ownership or located within National Forests, an Indian reservation, or some other type of reserve and couldn't be given to the state.

Over the years, the feds slowly fulfilled their commitment to the states on the missing sections. But when the most recent land swaps were done in 1990, Montana was still owed 1,184.16. acres when they stopped taking indemnity applications, citing staffing and resource constraints as restricting them from completing the process.

Now both the Montana DNRC and the BLM are moving toward wrapping up the note.

The 1,184 remaining base acres are located in Glacier National Park and in Gardiner, near Yellowstone National Park. Based on a 1980 Supreme Court decision involving the same process between the BLM and the state of Utah, states are allowed to aggregate base lands owed and convert the entitlement to a value, as opposed to a direct acre-for-acre compensation. Using a comparative sales analysis, Montana and the BLM agreed to a proposed value of $4.1 million.

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"We decided we wanted the value of the acres, not an acre-for-acre trade," says Emily Cooper, land section supervisor in the Trustland Management Division of DNRC. The DNRC proposed a priority list of 16,000 acres of BLM land they would be interested in obtaining, located in Chouteau, Custer, Fallon, Hill, Prairie, Richland, and Yellowstone counties.

"We worked to identify a list of 45 tracts viable for transfer that can help the state meet its mission of providing revenue for the school trust," says Cooper. Revenue from timber, surface and mineral resources on Montana state lands are used to fund the Montana public education and university systems.

"We will work with the BLM to go through the priority list in our order until we reach the equivalent of $4.1 million in value," says Cooper. "It will likely be around 10,000 acres transferred – we know it won't be all 16,000 proposed, but it will definitely be more than 1,184."

The locations of parcels of top priority are in the city of Miles City, where the DNRC would like to build a new office facility, oil revenue properties in Richland and Choteau counties, property within the town of Baker in Fallon County, and fertile ground along the Yellowstone River in Prairie County.

There are both pros and cons of ownership by either agency.

The detriments of state land ownership include a much higher grazing rate for leases – the current BLM rate is $2.11 per AUM, compared to a current Montana state lease of $19.57, although that is set to drop to $14.01 in 2017. Secondly, the BLM contributes to individual counties through payment in lieu of taxes (PILT), while the state of Montana does not compensate counties any amount for their lands.

Todd Devlin is a rancher in Prairie County where some of the proposed land swap acreages are located, and he also serves as a county commissioner. He says the counties would be the losers on a land swap on mineral rights as well.

"If that land goes to state ownership, there will be no revenue sharing back to the counties on coal, oil, gas, or right away leases. For example, right now on BLM land oil leases 48 percent of the income goes back to the state and 25 percent of that to the county, so we get 12 percent of all oil and gas revenues at the wellhead. That would all change."

The positives of state ownership are that it is much easier, most ranchers would agree, to make improvements such as a waterline or cross fencing on state lands compared to the burden of paperwork and process on federal lands. Cooper states that farming is also allowed on state land, whereas it's not on federal land. "In certain circumstances, lessees can start farming land they never farmed before. It might cost more, but they're going to make more."

One of the biggest areas of concern is the security of grazing permits and leases by current permittees.

According to the DNRC, on parcels that are approved for transfer, grazing permittees and lessees will receive a 2-year notice of potential termination of the lease. If the lands do transfer, grazing use will be terminated at the time the title is transferred to the state, or upon expiration of the 2-year notice period if the date occurs after title transfer. The DNRC can then offer 10-year state leases to existing BLM grazing permit or lease holders. Improvements are also considered in the valuation of the land, and compensation may be required for improvements belonging to the lessee.

Marc Jacobsen, public affairs specialist for the BLM Eastern Montana/Dakotas District in Miles City, said that once the BLM receives an application from the state, it may take up to two years to complete the process, given the public involvement and review processes required. "We strongly encourage everyone to attend these meetings and get their questions answered and provide comments – we want people to remember that public land is their land, and we will take all comments into consideration as we move through this process and conduct environmental assessments," Jacobsen says.

Because this land was made for you and me.

It just might take 129 years to do the paperwork. F

Open house meetings to share information with the public will be hosted by the BLM and the DNRC at the following locations:

November 9, 2016, 5-7 p.m.

BLM Miles City Field Office

Main Conference Room

111 Garryowen Road

Miles City, Montana 59301

November 10, 2016, 5-7 p.m.

BLM Billings Field Office

Main Conference Room

5001 Southgate Drive

Billings, Montana 59101

November 16, 2016, 4-6 p.m.

BLM Havre Field Office

Main Conference Room

3990 Highway 2 West

Havre, Montana 59501

You do not need to attend a meeting in order to comment. Written comments should be submitted to the Montana State Office, Branch of Realty, Lands and Renewable Energy, 5001 Southgate Drive, Billings, MT 59101 on or before December 16, 2016.

If you do not want your personal contact information to be viewed by the public, then do not include it directly in your comment.

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