Senate President Wants Opinion on Conservation Easement
HELENA, Mont. (AP) — The president of the Montana Senate is asking the attorney general for an opinion on whether Gov. Steve Bullock illegally allowed the state to purchase a $6.1 million conservation easement on an eastern Montana ranch without approval from the state Land Board.
State law requires the Land Board to approve "land acquisitions" worth more than $100,000.
Republican Sen. Scott Sales of Bozeman tells the Independent Record that he believes the Democratic governor overstepped his authority — if not from a legal standpoint, at least from a historic standpoint — for moving forward without Land Board approval.
"A decision of that magnitude ... I think warrants more insight, more oversight and quite frankly, I think having more people involved makes better decisions," Sales said Tuesday.
Owners of the mineral rights on the Horse Creek Ranch near Glendive objected to the easement, arguing it could affect oil and gas development. Ranch owner Adele Stenson and others said the easement could not legally affect the mineral rights.
Three of the five Land Board members voted in February to indefinitely delay action on the easement, which curbs development on about 23 square miles (61 square miles) of wildlife habitat and allows hunting access to a total of 31 square miles (81 square kilometers) of land, including state land.
Bullock argued an easement is not a "land acquisition" and under state law it was properly approved by the Fish and Wildlife Commission.
The easement was paid for with $4.3 million in Habitat Montana funding generated by the sale of hunting and fishing licenses along with federal money.
Sales earlier this month asked Attorney General Tim Fox, who is also on the Land Board, for an opinion on whether a conservation easement is a land acquisition. An attorney general's opinion carries the weight of law unless a court overturns the opinion.
Bullock is aware of Sales' request and is confident in the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Park's legal analysis, his staff said.
Under statute, the attorney general is considered the legal adviser to the wildlife agency. Fox's office was not consulted before the decision, Fish, Wildlife and Parks Director Martha Williams has said.
While Fox supported the Horse Creek Ranch conservation easement, he didn't approve of the state moving forward with the purchase in June.
"Not only is (the governor) ignoring long-standing practice, he has created a scenario in which the land title for the Horse Creek property is in legal limbo," Fox said in a statement. "I'm disappointed with the governor's decision."
State Auditor Matt Rosedale, Secretary of State Corey Stapleton and Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen also serve on the Land Board and voted to delay action on the easement. Rosendale and Arntzen cited concerns of the mineral rights holders and Stapleton said he opposes land management decisions that go into perpetuity, the Independent Record reported. At the time, Fox called concerns about split surface and mineral rights a "red herring."