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MT offers tax credits to landowners near fed lands

Kayla Sargent
for Tri-State Livestock News
Alan Charles, Coordinator of Landowner/Sportsman Relations is pictured with one of the entrance signs. Photo courtesy Montana FWP

When the public can’t get to federal lands, sometimes private landowners hold the key.

The Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks is launching a new program called “Unlocking Public Lands.” The program gives landowners incentive to allow public access to blocked lands in return for tax credits. It began last year, but has increased to include both state and federal lands and one contract is now worth $750 versus last year’s $500 credit.

“Positive access to federal lands is a big deal. As long as it’s not forced, each rancher should have the right to say whether or not they want to do it. So long as he has the chance to opt out, I don’t see a problem with it,” said Todd Devlin, Prairie County Commissioner and local rancher from Terry, Montana.

The program is completely voluntary and each contract applies for one year. Each landowner may be allowed up to four contracts per year for a total of $3,000 in tax credits, if approved. Under the contract, the landowner is to allow access to the landlocked state or federal parcels from at least June 30 through the end of the year.

“We’ll just have to see how it works. It’s a new concept, it’s innovative and neat. No where else in the nation is doing this. So far it has been a positive experience, we certainly didn’t have any negative feedback. I heard from two hunters that had been out and had a good experience.” Alan Charles, FWP coordinator of landowner/sportsman relations

“We’ll just have to see how it works. It’s a new concept, it’s innovative and neat. No where else in the nation is doing this,” said Alan Charles, Montana FWP Coordinator of Landowner/Sportsman Relations.

Charles has presented it to the Montana Stockgrowers, the Montana Cattlemen’s Association and the Farm Bureau this year to gain more awareness for the program. In the first trial, last year, just two landowners signed up for a total of four different parcels. Although numbers won’t be certain until all the applications come in and are approved, there seems to be more interest this year, Charles said.

“So far it has been a positive experience, we certainly didn’t have any negative feedback. I heard from two hunters that had been out and had a good experience,” Charles said.

Last year, there was no way of tracking exactly how many times these accesses were used. Now, they are working to make the program more interactive by adding a comment section on the website, where users can share their experience with the public.

The extra feedback will help, as this program is still in the trial stages. It has been authorized as a temporary program until December 31 of 2020. At that point, it will be presented to the legislature again.

“If it proves good for both the land and public, I think they will keep it,” Charles said.

Before the program was launched, research found that there is just under 150,000 acres of United States Forest Service land, approximately 1.4 million acres of Bureau of Land Management, and about 1.5 million acres of Department of Natural Resources and Conservation land that is currently not accessible to the public.

“If we don’t keep the multi use concept in place, we’re in trouble. If hunters and recreationalists don’t have access we’ve cornered ourselves. We have to keep it feasible,” Devlin said.

Devlin said his entire ranch is already open to the public. Although he is very supportive of public access to federal lands, he doesn’t think this program would be worth it to his operation, considering just a $750 tax credit.

While the small amount of credit might not be high enough to attract many ranchers, it’s low enough to cause minimal, if any, negative effect to the state’s budget.

“In our budget, it’s too small to make a difference. The net impact to the state is pretty negligible,” Taylor Brown, Montana State Senator, said.

Since it will not cause a substantial impact on the state’s budget, most landowners remain neutral about the new program. Many see it as an opportunity to develop positive relations with the public.

“As long as it’s not affecting your operation in a really negative way, it’s best to just tolerate it,” Devlin said.

Devlin’s long time experience as a county commissioner, rancher, and 1st Vice President of the Montana Association of Counties has heightened his awareness of access issues and the importance of cooperating with all parties involved. There are concerns of political friction arising between the public and landowners over access issues, if a compromise is not established.

“I see as ag gets tougher and tougher, people start to look for additional revenue. That’s what scares me, as we look for that through control of public access,” Devlin said.

The creators of this program see it as a good way to compromise with both the landowners and the public.

“Any more willing access that we can get is a positive thing,” Charles said.

The FWP will carefully consider all applications for the project that they receive. One of the most important considerations they make is whether or not it is a big enough parcel of land to prove practical.

If you are interested in participating in the “Unlocking Public Lands” project, applications can be found at http://fwp.mt.gov/hunting/hunterAccess/unlockingPublicLands/ and must be submitted by March 15, 2016 to be considered for credits this year.


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