Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ controversial 2012 purchase of a Hill County farm and ranch from the Aageson family was the main topic during the public comment section of FWP’s Commission meeting in Havre Wednesday.
Comments came from one party who has been mainly silent so far — former owner Dave Aageson.
Aageson said the price paid by FWP was worth it to create a 3,000 acre wildlife management area.
“Mr. Chairman, I think it’s about time that the discussion of the Milk River (Ranch) include some science and some facts,” Aageson said. “You have bought a spectacular piece of land. It’s one-of-a-kind … .
“I have heard scientists, experts, conservationists, preservationists, bird watchers, paleontologists come to my property and say, ‘My god, do you know what you have?”
FWP and Montana’s Department of Natural Resources and Conservation purchased the land from the Aagesons late last year, with Department of Natural Resources and Conservation paying about $1.1 million for 1,513 acres and FWP paying $4.7 million for 2,992 acres.
People, starting in November, have decried the purchase as a ridiculously high price for Hill County agricultural land, and it led to numerous proposals in the 2013 Legislature trying to limit FWP authority. Those bills failed or were vetoed.
People decried the sale as a last-minute behind-closed-doors deal made between then-Gov. Brian Schweitzer, whose family farmed in the area before Schweitzer and his parents moved to Judith Gap County, where he was raised.
Plans for FWP’s purchase originally included using federal money to buy the land, but when that fell through, money from Habitat Montana was used. That also raised criticism.
Continued complaints about the purchase
Several people made public comments complaining about the purchase, and urged commissioners to make certain no similar action was taken. Some were directed at Commission Chair Dan Vermillion, who is the only commissioner who participated in the 4-1 vote Dec. 10 approving the purchase. Vermillion voted to buy the land.
Local farmer Jeff Hockett said he always has supported FWP, but he now is not happy with the agency, which, he said, ignored the comments of local residents when it made the purchase.
People at the meeting when the purchase was made urged the agency to slow down, take another look, get another appraisal, Hockett said.
“Ten minutes later, the gavel dropped, and you bought that land for $1,900 an acre … ,” he said. “I really like you guys, and right now I don’t like you guys.”
He said if he buys land, he would be paying $800 an acre for farmland and $250 for grazing land. FWP paid $1,900 an acre for hunting land, when it pays him 71-cents-an-acre to allow hunting on his land through the block management program, Hockett said.
“Why should I cooperate with you any more?” he asked.
Hockett and others said the department didn’t use due diligence when it accepted the appraiser’s land valuation at face value.
The appraisal of the land made for FWP and DNRC, listed in the Sept. 11 appraisal, listed the value of river recreational land in the purchase at $1,900 an acre, irrigated cropland at $1,800 an acre, cultivated dry cropland at $775 an acre, rangeland and pasture at $600 an acre, and land enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program at $600 an acre.
Former state legislator and local rancher Bob Sivertson, who made his public comments after Aageson, accused Vermillion of “capitulating” with Schweitzer’s desire to make a deal.
He said the purchase led to landowners closing 100,000 acres of land to hunting just to make a point.
“If you capitulated to Gov Schweitzer, what about the future … ?” Sivertson asked. “We get so caught up in these politics we forget about the values of hard-working people.”
Vermillion: Providing for the future
Vermillion, who spoke before Sivertson made his comments, said his vote was to provide for future generations. While it may seem easy in Havre to find places to hunt, fish and recreate outdoors, in places like Billings, Bozeman and Missoula it is becoming more difficult, he said.
Some of the department’s most important work is in ensuring future generations of Montanans have the same opportunities, he said.
Vermillion said he apologizes for the perception that the department was not working with the community when it made the purchase, and that he hopes Hill County residents will find the department to be a good neighbor in its management of the area.
“It causes me concern,” he said. “I hope this is not the last ranch FWP buys, but I hope in the future the community feels like we’re working in collaboration with, them not against them.”
Aageson: Not just another piece of dirt
Aageson said the sale was not the result of last-minute, behind-closed-doors dealings, and the state departments were not buying just another piece of Hill County farmland.
“Public ownership isn’t for every piece of land,” he said. “I wouldn’t support it, in fact, I’d despise it. But some properties rise to the level.”
He said the area has been considered prime hunting land for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.
“The Milk River is no stranger to wars, anger, threats, deceit,” he said. “It’s been going on for hundreds of years.”
Aageson told the story of Chief Alexander of the Pend d’Oreilles Tribe bringing a band to the river in 1860 to hunt — other Native American tribes attacked them over their hunting on the Milk River, killing 25 members of the band and 290 horses, he said.
The band had to walk back to their home area, carrying their children and wounded, Aageson said.
“A 400-mile-walk. A hell of a price to pay for good hunting … ,” he said. “All of the the problems with the Milk River swirled around the right to hunt. Here we are, 2012, 2013, talking about the same thing.
“We haven’t progressed very far.”
He said the interest continues today — last spring and summer, while the Aagesons were negotiating with the state about the purchase, five hunting outfitting companies contacted him to negotiate obtaining rights to bring hunters to the land, completely or partially closing the land to public hunting.
State Sen. Greg Jergeson, D-Chinook, said in February that that was the main reason FWP buys land. After outfitters were awarded part of the state allotment in hunting licenses, to use in running their hunting outfitter businesses, the Legislature in 2007 created the Habitat Montana program, setting aside money gained primarily from sale of out-of-state hunting licenses for FWP to use in buying land and obtaining easements.
Aageson: A good business deal
Another aspect of the purchase was its opening up more than 3,000 acres to public access, Aageson said. DNRC owns quite a bit of land in the area, but the access is extremely limited. The purchase will open that up.
“These guys were smart enough to say, ‘We can spend some money, it’s a lot of money, a big chunk of money, but (we can get almost 9,000 acres). Not a bad move. A good business decision,” he said.
Aageson said there is more to the land than just its hunting aspect. It is considered to be some of the most pristine and healthy North American prairie, with numerous scientific reports backing that up.
He quoted part of an appraisal made by a FWP archaeologist in August 2010: “Basically, the property has it all, from a cultural resources standpoint, and not that many places in Montana can make that claim.”
He also cited a Havre scientist. Aageson said Lou Hagener, professor of science at Northern Montana College, now Montana State University-Northern, and his wife, Antoinette “Toni” Hagener, used to come out to the ranch. They told him it should be made into a state park, he said.
Aageson said, at that time, the idea of turning the land into a park made him angry.
“I was trying to raise a family on it, and state parks were not in the formula. Now, his son (FWP Director Jeff Hagener) gets to manage the land,” he said.
In the works for a decade
Aageson said he had discounted, for decades, people telling him that the land was special and should be preserved or protected. Once he and his brother, Verge Aageson, hit about 50, they started thinking about doing just that, he said.
The sale was not a last-minute deal, but had been considered for more than a decade, Dave Aageson said, citing a Nov. 5, 2005, article in the New York Times in which the writer described the ranch and the brothers working to find a way to preserve it for future generations.
“You know, there have been discussions in Montana over the last few months that the Milk River deal was thrown together in the middle of the night, just skirting up against Dec. 31 2012,” he said. “Well, if that is the case, how was it discussed in 2005 in the New York Times?
“That’s kind of in the light of day. Pretty transparent.
“Montana deserves more than to hear angry un-fact based comments,” he added.