The Montana Land Board endorsed a plan Monday to use roughly $40 million from a settlement with PPL Montana to buy more state land, over the objections of some lawmakers who say only the Legislature can make such a move.
The money comes from a state Supreme Court order that says PPL Montana needs to pay rent for the land its hydroelectric dams sit on. Part of that order included damages owed the state in excess of $40 million.
The Department of Natural Resources and Conservation said the money would likely best be used by increasing the size of the land trust that generates revenue for the state. It is proposing the state look into buying former Plum Creek timber land, currently owned by The Nature Conservancy.
The land board, made up of the five statewide elected officials, endorsed the idea in an unanimous vote.
“This gives us preliminary approval to go ahead with acquisition,” said Mary Sexton, director of the DNRC.
Some lawmakers question the legality of the move, saying only the Legislature can appropriate money. They point out there are better uses for money in hard times than buying land.
“I think it’s wrong,” said Rep. Walter McNutt, R-Sydney. “I think the pulse of the Legislature is that we have enough land. We don’t need to take more land off the tax rolls, and neither does the federal government.”
McNutt said an interim committee may decide to get involved in the issue. If not, the next Legislature meeting in January could try to intervene if the money hasn’t been spent yet.
“We don’t have a monarchy, we have three branches of government. The Legislature appropriates money,” McNutt said. “But I’m not too surprised they did it.”
The DNRC said it has done a legal analysis of the issue.
The PPL money — which has not been paid yet and could be subject to an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court — represents a unique windfall. Sexton has said the agency evaluated similar types of payments, along with the broad authority the Land Board has over trust land and other issues, in making its recommendation.
The agency is eyeing a portion of roughly 300,000 acres the Nature Conservancy agreed to buy from Plum Creek back in 2008. The conservancy now wants to sell much of it to the state.
A full analysis of the former Plum Creek land has yet to be completed.
Sexton has said that she would expect $40 million of land, if managed like other trust land, to generate about $2 million to $4 million a year for the state.