By BOB ANEZ/Associated Press Writer
HELENA - Managers of Montana's nearly 5 million acres of state-owned land leased for grazing and crops should do a better job of tracking and attacking noxious weeds on public ground, state Land Board members said Monday.
The advice came after the board reviewed a report by the legislative auditor that concluded weeds are a bigger problem than the state has estimated.
''We have an obligation as trustees of state lands to manage them in ways that generate revenue, and noxious weeds cut into our ability to generate revenue,'' said state Auditor John Morrison.
He said he wants a more accurate assessment from the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation on how significant the infestation is on state-owned land and possible alternatives to combatting the spread.
Attorney General Mike McGrath, another board member, said the state should be more aggressive in working with county weed districts in tackling the problem.
Morrison suggested a hearing before the board later this year, in which some of those holding leases on state land and people working in the field of weed control offer ideas.
The audit was based on a survey of 119 randomly selected parcels of state land in 20 counties. Auditors, working with county weed coordinators, found 43 percent of the parcels had no noxious weeds and 36 percent of the parcels had weeds making up 1 percent to 9 percent of the vegetation.
The infestation ranged from 10 percent to 100 percent on the remaining one fifth of the state parcels, the report said.
Those findings suggest the weed problem goes beyond the state estimate that just 9 percent of state land is plagued by noxious weeds, the audit said.
Bud Clinch, department director, acknowledged weeds are a serious problem but rejected the notion that it is pervasive on one of every five acres.
''That flat out is false,'' he told the board, adding that his field staff believes the correct rate is no more than 5 percent.
Kevin Chappell, chief of the department's Agriculture and Grazing Management Bureau, questioned the validity of the audit. He said all the state tracts surveyed were accessible by roads and, therefore, most susceptible to weeds being carried in on vehicles.
The audit recommended the department develop a better system for measuring the scope of the weed problem and improve incentives for lessees to control their spread. Also, the report said state land managers should be more willing to cancel leases to punish those who don't properly control weeds.
Clinch said his agency disagreed with trying to give leaseholders more of a financial incentive to fight weeds, saying he doesn't think it will do much good.
Clinch and Chappell assured the board they will work on implementing the other suggestions in the audit, but said it would be very difficult for the department to find the money or staff to do a comprehensive inventory of weeds on state lands.
Tom Cooper, who prepared the report, said supplemental weed control requirements are included in only about 5 percent of leases.
But he also said the board, in deciding what needs to be done, should keep in mind the toll weeds takes on state revenue from its leases. He estimated that, even if a fifth of the tracts have high infestation, the loss to the state is only about $140,000 a year.