After two hours of public comment, predominantly in opposition , the Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission voted 4-1 this morning to approve the purchase of the 3,000-acre Milk River Ranch near the Canadian border with Hill County.
The vote sealed the deal, following the state Land Board’s approval last month. FWP will manage nearly 3,000 acres, while the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation will take the remaining 1,500 acres, purchased for just over $1 million.
More than 100 people filled the Empire Builder conference room in the Great Northern Inn for the 9 a.m. conference call with the Helena-based meeting
Though only 18 initially said they wanted to voice their opinion, more than 50 ended up doing so before the vote, just after 11 a.m.
One of the opponents turned to the room and asked for a show of hands of the sale’s supporters. Six people raised their hands, two of whom actually spoke.
Retired Montana State University-Northern professor Bill Thackeray was first, explaining his concern with what might happen to the land if anyone other than the state purchased it.
Later in the meeting, John Brumley, manager of the Wahkpa Chu’gn Buffalo Jump, said that he supported the purchase for the archaeological and paleontological resources.
Dick Beatty, the Shelby lawyer for David and Verges Aageson, the ranch’s owner, also spoke, attempted to counter concerns he had heard about how rushed people thought the purchase process had been. Beatty said that the Aagesons had been interested in preserving the land since at least the mid-1990s and FWP had first approached them in 2008.
Every other comment from Havre was of vehement opposition.
Sen. John Brendan, R-Scobey, began the discussion with his complaint that the deal just didn’t pass “the smell test,” that he suspected political corruption behind the purchase.
Rep. Wendy Warburton, R-Chinook, followed by saying she had heard nothing but opposition from her constituents. She added that FWP’s interest in the property didn’t make much sense, since the hunting and fishing aren’t even that good up there, with better opportunities closer to town.
Over two hours, farmers and rancher from all over the state voiced concerns from several perspectives. Their objections included:
• The sale price was too high, and it would affect local property tax rates.
• There isn’t enough access.
• FWP can’t manage the land they have and had no business buying more. FWP should buy land, but other land in other places, for less money.
One speaker even said it was part of a part of a secret plan to fill north central Montana with roaming wild bison.
The term “stones and bones” was thrown around repeatedly to devalue the archaeological and paleontological resources of the property, with the Montana University System Board of Regents has conditionally purchased for $2 million.
The commission moved on to other regional offices, also included in the conference call, where opinions were more mixed though still mostly in opposition for many of the same reasons heard on the Hi-Line.
Gary Peterson, a land broker in Malta, described the property as the “crown jewel” of the Milk River, and spoke to the high standards of the appraisal process.
A Missoula resident said he had had successful while hunting in the area over the past three years and hoped to continue to do so, also mentioning his contributions during those visits to Hi-Line business, like hotels and restaurants.
Rep. Kris Hansen, R-Havre, was at the commission meeting in person in Helena. She spoke on behalf of her many worried constituents, explaining how satisfied she and others felt after the sole public hearing on the purchase in October.
Commission Chair Bob Ream, in Helena, tried to move on from the public comment portion, having heard from as many people as said they wanted to speak at the beginning. Both Brendan and Hansen were upset by this and asked that the rest of the Havre listeners who wanted to speak have an opportunity to do.
After local FWP biologist Scott Hemmer told Ream that 16 more people wanted to speak, Ream said they could say their names, where they were from and what their stance was, just to note on the record.
“We have got to have this stopped,” Chinook resident Dustin Hofeldt said, in addition to his stance. “The alligator will never get full. It will just keep moving up the road.”
After a few minutes of this, the ever-growing line came to an end and Ream said he had counted nearly three dozen names.
Then came time for discussion with the commissioners, and most still seemed in support of the purchase. District 3 Commissioner Ron Moody, from Lewistown, said he supported public ownership of the land, but he was unsure that FWP would be the best to buy it. He recommended that the commission table the motion, get another appraisal, and try to calm the fears of the skeptics with additional public hearings.
“All in all, for the benefit of Montana, in the long run, I think this is an opportunity we can't pass up,” Ream said, before calling for the vote.
Just after the 4-1 vote, the commission called for a five-minute break, during which Brendan announced to the room full of disappointed ranchers that he was filing a lawsuit to block the purchase and told the crowd to speak to him about joining.