The Montana Land Board decided Monday to consider increasing grazing fees charged ranchers who run cattle on state land by perhaps twice as much.
A study commissioned by the board found the state is charging far less for grazing fees than private landowners. The board, run by the five statewide elected officials from the governor on down, is charged with managing state land and raising money for the school trust.
The land board gave the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation the go-ahead to begin a multi-month review of the issue, which the agency said has not been done in about 10 years. The agency will come back with a formal proposal late in the year after holding public hearings.
The rates would affect about 4 million acres of state land — and nearly 5,000 ranchers who lease the land from the state. Agency director Mary Sexton said that every $1 increase in the average $6.50 price per animal unit currently charged would raise an extra $1 million a year for state coffers.
A proposal from the study said the state could double its current rate and still only be charging about 70 percent of the market rate. Such an increase would raise about $6 million for the state, the agency said.
Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who heads the land board, said the state could currently be criticized for charging too little and failing to get sufficient income from taxpayer-owned land. The governor said he personally owns land that he leases for cattle grazing, and pointed out he charges far more than the state does.
“We have a fiduciary responsibility to the school children of Montana to maximize the return on these assets,” Schwietzer said of the Land Board.
The Montana Stockgrowers Association opposes the increase. The group argues it is not fair to compare state land rates with private rates because there are different obligations for lessees.
“During the legislative session earlier in the year, both the governor and the legislative leadership made it clear they didn’t want to raise taxes or fees on anyone in these uncertain economic times. This proposal doesn’t fit with that position,” Jay Bodner, of the stockgrowers, said in a release.