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Attorney General Tim Fox, left, and Gov. Steve Bullock listen to testimony

Attorney General Tim Fox, left, and Gov. Steve Bullock listen to testimony during a Feb. 20 Montana Land Board hearing regarding the Horse Creek Conservation Easement.

Gov. Steve Bullock vetoed a bill Friday that would have put state conservation easements under the authority of the Montana State Board of Land Commissioners.

House Bill 265, brought by Rep. Kerry White, R-Bozeman, would have overturned a ruling from the Montana Supreme Court last year that sided with Bullock, a Democrat, over Republican Attorney General Tim Fox. The court found that Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks’ conservation easements are finalized by a vote of the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission – a decision that overturned an attorney general’s opinion Fox issued that put final authority with the Land Board.

The case stemmed from the Horse Creek Conservation Easement near Wibaux. Funded from the Habitat Montana account in addition to federal dollars, the easement passed unanimously through the wildlife commission. When it came before the Land Board, Secretary of State Corey Stapleton, state Auditor Matt Rosendale and Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen voted to delay action. Bullock and Fox voted against delay.

In response, Bullock cited statute to circumvent the board and approved Horse Creek. The law, he found, only requires board approval for land purchases while easements are finalized with a vote of the wildlife commission. A long-standing practice of bringing easements to the board had been a “courtesy,” Bullock said.

Senate President Scott Sales, R-Bozeman, then asked Fox study the legality of Bullock’s action through an attorney general’s opinion. That opinion, which carries the weight of the law unless overturned by a court, found that board approval was needed. In an interview, Fox stated Bullock “unilaterally ignored,” the law.

Bullock and FWP Director Martha Williams took Fox’s opinion to the Montana Supreme Court. In their 6-1 decision, justices sided with Bullock and vested final easement approval back with the wildlife commission.

White and many of the bill’s supporters felt the Land Board brought more scrutiny to the spending of state dollars. While the commission is appointed by the governor, the Land Board is elected, and voters have the opportunity to hold elected officials directly accountable, White said.

Opponents of HB 265 believed the Land Board represented an unnecessary level of bureaucracy without sufficient guidelines to consider easements. During two contentious hearings, the owners of Horse Creek, the Stenson family, along with several conservation groups, argued that the bill added uncertainty to an extensive and lengthy easement process.

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Bullock’s veto letter echoes those arguments.

“If the uncertainty of the Land Board process becomes law, I expect that few families would ever sign up for new conservation easement projects,” the letter states. “Farmers and ranchers simply cannot make important financial decisions that hinge on the whims of arbitrary political approval. The result would be fewer or no new projects - the end of the Habitat Montana conservation easement program.”

The letter also touts the rigor of the easement vetting process through FWP and the commission, calling the review “intensive.”

The Montana Wildlife Federation was among the groups pushing Bullock to veto the bill and applauded the decision on Friday.

“We don’t need more government bureaucracy to kill quality projects after they’ve gone through two years of review,” said Dave Chadwick, executive director. “Instead of working to create more roadblocks to conservation and access, legislators should work with hunters and landowners to build on Habitat Montana and create more opportunities, not less.”

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Reporter Tom Kuglin can be reached at 447-4076 @IR_TomKuglin

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Natural Resources Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter / Assistant Editor for The Independent Record.

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