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Here's how debate over a conservation easement ended up before the Montana Supreme Court

Here's how debate over a conservation easement ended up before the Montana Supreme Court

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The Montana Supreme Court's 6-1 ruling Tuesday that the Montana State Board of Land Commissioners does not hold authority over state conservation easements capped months of legal and political wrangling.

Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks had a longstanding practice of bringing conservation easements, which typically pay for public access and curb development on private land, to the Land Board for final approval. Those votes had typically been routine and often come following years of negotiations and a vote of the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission.

Earlier this year three board members, Secretary of State Corey Stapleton, state Auditor Matt Rosendale and Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen began a tighter scrutiny of those easements, voting down Gov. Steve Bullock and Attorney General Tim Fox first on an amendment to an existing easement and then delaying action on the $6.1 million Horse Creek Easement near Wibaux.

Following that vote in February the issue of FWP easement oversight became both a hot button political topic and a source of angst and uncertainty for the families who wanted to sign easements with the state. The issue would bounce between legislative committees, the Land Board and Fish and Wildlife Commission, culminating in a lawsuit between Bullock and Fox before the Montana Supreme Court.

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