Two prominent sporting groups are asking the current FWP Commission to extend the public comment period for the Milk River Ranch acquisition until at least 2013, after learning that federal funding for the purchase fell through.
The Montana Sportsmen Alliance, which represents hunters and anglers, sent an email Tuesday to Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commissioners, saying they want the comment period to run until Feb. 1, 2013, for a variety of reasons. In the event the FWP Commission chooses not to extend the comment period, the Sportsmen Alliance says it opposes the proposed $4.7 million purchase of 2,992 acres from brothers David and Verges Aageson. The property is about 45 miles north of Havre along the Canadian border and would be used as a wildlife management area.
“Montana Sportsmen Alliance strongly supports the acquisition of lands by FWP that provide additional access and recreational opportunities for the general public,” the group said in the email that Vito Quatraro sent to the FWP Commission. “Our concern is not with additional lands but instead that we are using public dollars to purchase the best properties available.”
John Gibson, president of the Public Land/Water Access Association, said his group initially came out in support of the purchase. However, like the Sportsmen Alliance, Gibson’s group became concerned once they learned that Pittman-Robertson funds — raised by the sale of ammunition and guns nationwide — no longer will be used to purchase the ranch.
Instead, when FWP officials learned in October that artifacts on the property might make the federal funding unavailable for months or even years, the decision was made to use Habitat Montana money, which comes from the sale of hunting licenses in Montana.
FWP officials said not only would it temporarily drain the Habitat Montana coffers — at least until next July — the Milk River Ranch purchase also would put three other land projects “on hold.”
“There was some confusion on the funding and we want to look at it again,” Gibson said. “In light of the fact that Pittman-Robertson money couldn’t be used for the purchase of the Milk River Ranch, that changed some priorities down the line.
“That isn’t to say we will not support it; we’re just asking the commission to delay their decision so we can evaluate it on the basis of new information.”
Not an unusual request
Bob Ream, the FWP Commission chairman, didn’t return a telephone call Tuesday seeking comment on the extension request. But Commissioner Ron Moody, whose district includes the Milk River Ranch, said they’ve regularly granted public comment period extensions.
“In my four years on the commission, delaying purchase processes for various reasons like appraisals and other details of the transaction has always been routine,” Moody said. “So I would presume that the commission would have to look seriously at the request.”
The Sportsmen Alliance, as well as Stan Meyer, an FWP commissioner from 1993-2001, had similar funding concerns but also raised other issues. They questioned the appraised value of the property, noting that comparable sales don’t appear to justify the proposed purchase price. FWP officials had expected it to fetch an appraisal of about $2.8 million; instead it came back at $4.7 million.
Meyer and the Sportsmen Alliance note that the Milk River Ranch acquisition ranks last out of 15 proposed land projects this year, which “has raised numerous questions as to the motives behind this proposed purchase.”
The Sportsmen say the proposal has been “fast-tracked” to close in 2012, without the proper vetting and that it lacks transparency.
“There seems to be legitimate questions as to the hunting, fishing and recreational value of this property with the obvious questions being ‘is the public getting the best bang for their bucks,’” the Sportsmen Alliance said in the email.
Meyer was even more blunt, calling it a “rush-rush deal.” He noted that the State Land Board voted on the proposal before FWP — which is opposite of the typical process — and that the FWP Commission set up a special conference call for Dec. 10 to vote on the matter instead of waiting for its regular Dec. 20 meeting in Helena.
He added that few, if any, Hill County residents have voiced support for the sale — mainly based on what they believe is an inflated price tag — and that sportsmen he’s talked to about the project are more interested in other purchases and conservation easements that are on hold.
One of those projects is the Teigen Ranch near Winnett, which is up for sale. Owner Dan Teigen has expressed interest in putting a conservation easement on 22,000 acres to allow hunting access.
“The sportsmen I have talked with are very interested in getting an easement on the Teigen property,” Meyer said. “It’s good for upland game birds, antelope and now it’s put on indefinite hold because those dollars are going toward the Milk River Ranch.”
FWP officials as well as some sporting groups have praised the ranch for its wildlife habitat and travel corridors, noting that it’s an important route between the United States and Canada. About seven miles of the Milk River runs through the lowlands parcel slated for purchase by FWP.
Owners’ tax concerns
FWP officials have said that they’re moving quickly on the ranch purchase because the Aagesons are concerned about increased tax rates. They note that all of the land projects listed each year are good projects, and that it’s not unusual for lower-ranked projects to jump ahead of others in the process. Sometimes those projects are easier than higher-ranked ones, sometimes there’s a pressing need and sometimes other factors come into play.
The Department of Natural Resources and Conservation already has been given authority by the Land Board to purchase another 1,513 acres of the ranch for about $1 million. That cropland will be leased back to the Aagesons.
In addition, the area’s use by Native Americans stretches back centuries, and it also was home to dinosaurs. The Montana Board of Regents last month agreed to pay $2 million for the rights to archaeological and paleontological artifacts on the Milk River Ranch, bringing the total purchase price to $7.7 million in public funds.
A second appraisal done in September, which focused on the artifacts, put their value at $12.7 million; the Aagesons will donate back to the university the $10.7 million difference between the $2 million the Regents offered to pay.
The total $7.7 million sale price equates to $1,709 per acre for the Milk River Ranch. If the values in the two appraisals totaling $17.4 million are taken into consideration, the per-acre price increases to $4,102.
In comparison, last week the 124,000-acre Broken O Ranch, which spans three counties along the Rocky Mountain Front and includes 20 miles of the Sun River near Augusta, was sold to a private party. The price was not disclosed, but it was listed for $135.5 million — or $1,092 per acre.
Reporter Eve Byron: 447-4076, firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter.com/IR_EveByron