A storm is brewing in northern Hill County, as farmers and ranchers from all over the state have grown increasingly vocal in their opposition to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks buying up nearly 3,000 acres of Canada-bordering land owned by David and Verges Aageson.
The thunderhead is expected to roll through Havre Monday at 9 a. m. in the Great Northern Inn’s Empire Builder conference room, where FWP will be setting up an additional way for the public to listen and contribute to the FWP Commissioners meeting that morning, where the board will cast the final vote.
Last month the Montana Land Board, headed by Gov. Brian Schweitzer, gave its approval, not only to FWP’s proposed $4.7 million purchase but also to the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation’s $1 million purchase of an additional 1,500 acres of Aageson land.
During the Nov. 15 Board of Regents meeting, that board approved a deal to purchase, for $2 million, the rights to the “paleontological and archeological rights for research purposes, ” on the land, which includes everything from dinosaur fossils to Native American historical and cultural sites.
The agreement with the regents claims that the “appraised value … is expected to exceed $4 million. ” In fact the purchase relies on it.
The regent sale depends on two conditions, that “the appraisal will equal at least the amount of the acquisition price, ” and that “a mutually acceptable use and access agreement by UM, FWP, DNRC and the sellers can be reached. ”
An environmental assessment by FWP claims that the land would provide a wildlife corridor from the Canadian border at least to Fresno Reservoir that would preserve a pure and diverse Montana habitat. The property was also classified partially as recreational riverfront land, which drove up the appraised price.
Schweitzer told the Havre Daily News this morning that he supports the purchase, as it completes the 40 miles of state-owned river land, of which, he said too little is publicly accessible in eastern Montana.
He compared the purchase and its opposition, today and during the land board meeting, to an account he read from a 1905 Kalispell Daily Interlake article explaining the local total opposition to what would become Glacier National Park.
Most of the opposition to the sale has been from nearby landowners who feel that the price is too high and that the process, which started back in June, has moved too fast.
Though, with these complaints and the statewide press they’ve received, some prior supporters have pulled back a little.
The Montana Sportsmen’s Alliance had supported the purchase when 75 percent of the purchase was going to be paid by federal Pittman-Robertson funds, which come from gun and ammo taxes. When that option was taken off the table, so that the purchase would have to clean out the state’s Habitat Montana funding, the Alliance asked the FWP Commission to extend the discussion period to do a little more research.
The PR funds would have come from a grant through the regional U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service office in Colorado, where Dave McGillivary, chief of the Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration Program, said that Montana had called off the grant.
“In this project we had heard, with Adam Brooks (FWP’s Federal Aid specialist) up there, they were planning on applying for PR funds, ” McGillivary said. “The folks here tell me that the latest we’ve heard is that they’re going to use their Habitat funds.
“We do have a thorough review process and that takes some time. I don’t know if that was a factor. ”
According to Brooks, the grant idea was pulled because the Aagesons didn’t want to wait for the federal grant reviewers to go through all of the investigations associated with historical preservation rules.
“Had it been a straight purchase with no attachments then it could have been approved, ” Brooks said. “But because we were going to buy the land with the archeological and paleontological rights separate, that would have interfered with the grant. That was just a timing thing. Any time you bring in federal money, you bring all their strings. ”
The loss of PR funds was a result of the Aagesons simultaneous desires to preserve the historical traits of the land and get the deal finished by the end of the year, which the federal government just couldn’t do.
One of the reasons that people find the purchase suspicious is that the Milk River Ranch was ranked last out of 15 possible FWP purchases on an internal list from earlier this year.
FWP spokesperson Ron Aasheim said that the ranking doesn’t mean what people think it means, mostly that nearly half of the people ranking these properties didn’t score the Milk River Ranch idea at all, because of incomplete information submitted late in the request period in a different format from the rest. He said many didn’t think they were supposed to score it.
Additionally, Aasheim said, “its timing a lot of the time, ” and coordinating and negotiating with landowners about when and how to sell doesn’t always work out.
Another reason people are suspicious of the purchase, and its support from Schweitzer, is what appears to some to be a relationship between the governor and the Aagesons.
A letter from Hi-Line resident Chris Pendroy, quoted in the Helena Independent Record, claims “Governor Schweitzer was raised within a few miles of this property and has been long time family friends of the Aagesons. ”
While their families’ lands were near, Schweitzer dismissed claims that he is close to the Aagesons.
“Anyone who said I grew up with them is a liar. A 100 percent liar, ” Schweitzer said in the same Independent Record article.
This morning, Schweitzer questioned whether Pendroy was even a real person, or a fictionalized name created as “a concerted effort” by opponents of the sale to spread misinformation pseudonymously.
Though Schweitzer did appoint David Aageson, a Republican state representative from 1972 to 1978, to the Montana Investment Board in Oct. 2011 and his brother Verges Aagespm to the Agriculture Development Council in Sept. 2010. Schweitzer said this morning that those board positions are just two among the 1,000 unpaid citizen board positions to which he has appointed between 3,000 and 4,000 people over the past eight years.
The Aagesons did make campaign contributions to Schweitzer’s campaigns. In 2004, Verges and his wife Norreen donated $250 to Schweitzer’s campaign, though David’s wife Julie also donated $250 to his competitor, Bob Brown. In 2008, the whole family came together to donate $2,550 to Schweitzer’s second campaign.
Many of these arguments will be heard again in the Empire Builder room on Monday morning. The commission members, who couldn’t be reached this week as most were out of their respective towns, could approve the purchase, hold off for more public comment and research, or kill the entire purchase.