A state proposal to purchase a ranch 42 miles northwest of Havre for recreation and protection of natural resources is being both praised and questioned.
The 4,505-acre Milk River Ranch is described by some as an “exceptional” piece of property, used for centuries as a gathering place by Native Americans and by the dinosaurs before them. Teepee rings, burial grounds and fossils can be found across the landscape, and 10 miles of the Milk River flows through the parcel, which abuts Canada.
But others see the proposed purchase as a waste of money and wonder why the state could pay almost $5.8 million for the property.
Under the current proposal, the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation will buy 1,513 acres from brothers Dave and Verges Aageson for between $1 million and $1.1 million, depending on whether the land is irrigated. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks would acquire the remaining 2,992 acres, with about 10 miles of Milk River frontage, for $4.7 million.
The DNRC parcels would be leased back to the Aagesons for cropland and the FWP property would be a new Wildlife Management Area.
“This land, if we could acquire it, would be a gathering place for all of Montana for generations to come,” Gov. Brian Schweitzer said in a speech to Land Board members in April. “This may be one of the most extraordinary things the Land Board has done. … I just think this is an extraordinary opportunity.”
Gary Belovsky, an environmental research director for the University of Notre Dame, also praised the proposed sale to the state, noting in written comments to FWP that the university has invested more than $2 million in an education and research program at the site during the past seven years.
“The Milk River property is truly unique, representing a treasure trove of dinosaur fossils, Native American cultural sites and prairie environs,” Belovsky wrote. “… From a prairie elk herd, to swift foxes to high bird, insect and plant diversity, the property preserves our prairie natural heritage; the only element missing is bison, which Native American leaders want to reintroduce.”
Hellgate Hunters and Anglers note the parcel’s “pristine ecosystem” and call it a “nexus of remarkable biological, historical, cultural and spiritual resources.” It’s also a wildlife travel corridor between the United States and Canada, and is home to antelope and trophy white-tailed deer.
Mary Sexton, DNRC director, said it will provide an excellent 3 percent return on the investment, which equates to about $33,647 annually; most state lands provide an average of 2 percent return for the school trust. In addition, it will keep wealthy out-of-state residents from buying the property and closing it to the public.
“We have had that happen across Montana,” Sexton said on Friday. “Folks like the property, the wildlife and the river front. But in this case, I think the Aagesons want to keep the property pretty much as it is.”
Some question the proposal
Yet others, including people who live in Hill County near the parcel, are scratching their heads both at the reasons to buy the ranch, and the $5.8 million price tag.
In response to an Environmental Assessment for the purchase, residents Ron and Mary Kapperud wrote to FWP to say they believe the appraised value is four times what the land is worth due to its river bed, rough breaks, old river channels and barren cut banks. They also mention that Schweitzer’s grandparents homesteaded next to the Aagesons and are family friends, and wonder about the impetus behind the purchase.
“This situation looks like a ‘payoff’ to your friends instead of using common sense,” the Kapperuds wrote, asking why adjacent landowners weren’t approached about being part of the proposal. The FWP land surrounds another piece of private property and it’s not clear what the future will hold for that landowner.
He added that at a local Hill County restaurant, several customers were discussing the purchase, and their issue wasn’t the price, “but the simple fact that Governor Schweitzer was raised within a few miles of this property and has been long time family friends of the Aagesons.”
On Friday, Schweitzer said that any attempt to try to tie him to doing this as a favor to the Aagesons is absurd. Schweitzer said that his grandparents homesteaded next to their grandparents, but noted that his family lived about 150 miles away and his grandfather died before the governor was born. Schweitzer’s grandmother passed away when he was 5 years old, he said, so he doesn’t know many folks in the area of the Milk River Ranch. His grandparents are buried within a few miles of the Aageson property.
“Anyone who said I grew up with them is a liar. A 100 percent liar,” Schweitzer said.
He recalls meeting Verges Aageson in the late 1990s, when Schweitzer sat on the board of the Farm Service Agency and Aageson appealed an FSA decision.
“I don’t know if we found in his favor or not,” Schweitzer said. “But that was the first time I met the guy.”
He met both brothers around 2006, Schweitzer said, when they came to his office to tell him about working with the tribes and Notre Dame on a new environmental summer science program that would take place on the ranch and enhance Native American educational opportunities at the university.
“They explained they were attempting to do this living lab,” he recalled. “I said ‘Keep me posted. It sounds exciting.’”
The governor appointed Dave Aageson to the Board of Investments in 2011, appointed Verges Aageson to the Agricultural Development Council in 2010 and Verges Aageson’s son Chris Aageson worked in the governor’s Office of Economic Development from January 2006 to December 2011.
“But I have never been to their house or to their ranch,” Schweitzer said. “But people who have been there, not just from Notre Dame but Indian leaders and our experts, say it’s an extraordinary piece of property.”
Verges Aageson was one of 25 co-sponsors of a June 3 fundraiser for then-governor candidate Steve Bullock, according to an invitation distributed for the event. The event was held at Schweitzer’s Georgetown Lake home, according to the invitation. When contacted Saturday about the fundraiser through a member of his communications staff, Schweitzer had nothing to add in terms of commenting on the fundraiser.
David and Verges Aageson and their wives and children contributed $2,800 to Schweitzer’s 2008 re-election campaign, according to state records. Members of the family donated $6,485 to Bullock’s 2012 run for governor, according to state records.
Assessing the land
In his response to the EA, Hill County Commissioner Mike Wendland said that the Milk River “is not a Blue Ribbon trout stream or anything close” and shouldn’t be considered in the equation when it comes to the purchase price. He said access is poor and won’t get better unless a lot of money is invested in it.
Mark Aageson, whose property borders the parcel and is a cousin of David and Verges, questioned in written comments how the state will manage the parcel, and noted that the elk hunting mentioned in the EA for the site is “completely by luck or by locals who spend enormous amounts of time there …”
“How you can establish recreational value of $1,900 per acre … with limited elk and NO fishing, I find to be suspect,” Aageson wrote in comments to FWP. “I cannot emphasize enough how I find this to be mis-use of taxpayer dollars.”
The total price actually is about $1,282 per acre.
The Montana Wool Growers Association is requesting an Environmental Impact Statement be created to analyze the true impact of the proposal.
“It is clear from the Draft EA that this proposal will have significant ramifications for property owners living in and around the proposed purchase location, and will have a significant and permanent impact on both the human and natural environment in the Milk River area,” the group wrote in comments to FWP. “… MWGA has concerns about the over-reliance of this EA on the alleged, and unsupported, negative impacts that could result from the sale of this property to a buyer who is not a government agency.
“FWP is tasked with promoting hunting and fishing opportunities, and tasked with conducting property game management. FWP is not in the business of preserving the aesthetic value of land, nor in the business of discouraging economic development lands within Montana.”
Replete with history
According to the real estate website “Lands Watch,” which listed the initial sale price at $16.5 million two years ago but dropped it recently to $12.7 million for the 4,505 deeded and 3,500 leased acre Milk River Ranch, the property has a long and storied history.
At least three generations of Aagesons have worked the ranch and farm operation since they acquired the land under the 1913 Homestead Act, but human use is thought to go back at least several thousand years.
An estimated 1,000 cultural sites from Native Americans are spread throughout the property, including teepee rings, ceremonial sites and buffalo jumps. The Salish-Kootenai, Pend d’Oreille, Blackfoot, Cree, Sioux, Assiniboine, Gros Ventre and Crow all were known to hunt, trade goods and occupy the area.
“A written record exists of a battle on the Milk River in 1860 where a newly arrived Pend d’Oreille group suffered a catastrophic defeat in an Assiniboine surprise attack,” the real estate website notes. “A chief’s son, killed in the surprise attack, is thought to be buried on the Milk River Ranch.”
The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes had tried to purchase the property, but had problems raising the funds and some members were concerned about buying land in Eastern Montana that was off of the reservation, as well as management of the property.
The ranch also is in the midst of the Judith River Formation, renowned for its dinosaur fossils. The EA notes that paleontologists from Notre Dame indicate that the property has “significant fossil resources and value,” and that Montana State University has expressed interest in the property’s archaeological and paleontological rights.
Under the sale agreement, the right to the fossils and archaeological items would be retained by the Aageson family, and they would be allowed to excavate no more than five acres at a time.
It’s unclear how the archaeological and paleontological items would be preserved if the land becomes open to the public. Schweitzer said it will be up to FWP and DNRC to protect the artifacts.
Neither David nor Verges Aageson returned a phone call left at their residences early Friday seeking comment on the proposed sale.
In a 2008 email exchange between Paul Sihler, who handled land purchased for FWP, and other FWP employees, Sihler expressed interest in the Aageson’s property. He had been contacted by Gates Watson with The Conservation Fund and they drove to the ranch to see if FWP was interested.
“He was trying to put together a bigger partnership and find out if there was a role for us,” Sihler said.
Watson said it’s a “cool piece of property with some incredible archaeological and paleontological resources,” but at the time they couldn’t put together the necessary funding.
The Environmental Assessment put together by FWP indicates that the state agency is mainly interested in the Milk River riparian habitat and associated uplands, which includes about 95 percent intact native habitat including sagebrush, cottonwoods and native prairie grasses in badland habitat.
An appraisal put together by MCA Inc. out of Bozeman last month compared the property to 24 other similar transactions that sold for agricultural and/or recreational use. For FWP, the appraisal looked at the land for its recreational value, and compared it to nine sites that ranged in price from $1,140 per acre to $3,500 per acre; if looked at as unimproved land, the per-acre price drops to a range of $496 to $1,855.
The total price to FWP is $4,708,500 for 2,992 acres, or $1,573 per acre.
The EA notes that at least 75 percent of the FWP portion of the funding — $3,531,375 — will come from federal Pittman-Robertson program, which raises money from the sale of ammunition and guns. On Nov. 5, FWP employees Adam Brooks and Hugh Zackheim, along with John Grimm from the DNRC, said they were waiting for just a few more pieces of information before they submitted it to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Denver for approval.
“We are trying to use federal dollars so we have to pretty much have the project ready to go,” said Brooks, who handles federal aid for FWP. “We pretty much need to get it submitted now because we’re closing in on the end of the year and want to get it done for the landowner.”
On Nov. 7, Otto Jose, Jackie Trout and Eddie Bennett with the USFWS office in Denver said they had talked to Brooks on Nov. 2 and realized that with the archeological resources, they would have to go through a fairly time-consuming process of making sure the process complied with the National Historic Preservation Act.
“We were discussing the timing and all decided it was in the best interest of FWP not to come in with a grant request because of the compliance issues,” Bennett said.
“So we didn’t reject it, but they decided not to submit it,” Trout added.
On Friday, Brooks said that he was still waiting for information from FWP attorneys and that they may still submit the project for P-R funds. But he added that the timing was an issue, and they might have to look at Habitat Montana for funding.
Habitat Montana money generally comes from the sale of hunting and fishing licenses. That pool of money is supposed to pay for the other 25 percent of the Milk River Ranch for FWP, which is about $1,177,125.
The fund has between $4 million and $5 million in it that’s unobligated at this time, but it’s not clear if it can cover the entire $4.7 million FWP purchase price if the Pittman-Robertson funding doesn’t come through. It’s also unclear whether other projects in line for Habitat Montana funding would have to be postponed if the Milk River Ranch project drains the bank.
The DNRC is focused on 1,513 acres on the higher portions of the property, many of which are either dryland farmed or irrigated. The appraised value is $1,069,226 if the land isn’t irrigated and $1,159,083 if it is, with a per-acre cost between $706 and $766.
The purpose for this land transaction is to improve income to the Common School trust, and it will be an addition to about 3,000 acres directly adjacent to the property area. It will be purchased with Land Banking dollars, which is money raised by the sale of other state trust lands.
Since this is a Land Banking project, DNRC wasn’t required to conduct an analysis of the impacts of purchasing the property. Notification letters were sent to Hill County Commissioners as well as adjacent landowners notifying them about the proposed purchase.
Hill County commissioner Jeff LaVoi said he thinks they’ve “painted a prettier picture” of the property than what’s really out there, and that many of his constituents are opposed to it.
Commissioner Wendland added in his written comments that he opposes the land transaction and that it was done without enough input from the public from the beginning.
He also questioned why they’re letting the current owners stay on and operate after the purchase.
“If the current property owners were so concerned they could have sold a conservation easement and continued to operate the ranch,” Wendland said. “This option would have been much cheaper for the DNRC and FWP.”
Sexton said that it’s not an unusual arrangement.
“We’ve done that frequently with acquisitions,” Sexton said. “One thing we try to do is block up state lands, and we’re buying this one for the return on our investment.”
Although the Land Board is slated to make a final decision on the two purchases on Monday, that decision is contingent upon the approval of the FWP Commission, which is slated to discuss the purchase at its Dec. 10 meeting. The commission gave initial approval at a meeting in the spring. The Land Board meets at 9 a.m. in the Capitol building in Helena.
Reporter Eve Byron: 447-4076, email@example.com or Twitter.com/IR_Eve Byron