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Here's the solution to Milk River Ranch controversy: Be neighborly

It's puzzling to see why the north country farmers are so upset about the sale of the large ranch along the upper Milk River badlands region just south of the Canadian border. Was it the location of the land that is generally inaccessible to farming, or is it jealousy over the price the land brought?

And beyond the strong negative reaction of the sale, does the closing of their lands to hunting as a means of retaliation make any reasonable sense?

First, we have to wonder why the neighboring farmers aren't pleased that the land sold for more than expected because that seems to suggest increased value for their own land.

Maybe this rationale does not apply because the opponents of the sale see their land as dryland farms rather than as riverfront property. As a result, they conclude, perhaps correctly, that the high price paid for the Milk River land would not improve the value and sale price of their neighboring farms at less scenic locations. But this thinking is probably incorrect.

Second, in my approximately 40 years of farming-ranching experience, my family were usually very pleased at the good fortunes of our neighbors. Usually, the good price for the sale of a neighbor's land or produce would lead to parties and celebrations (as appropriate to the circumstances) and congratulations rather than derogatory comments and attacks on the proceedings.

Sometimes, this pleased reaction would result from a good price for livestock or farm crops — or a good price received for land when a rancher was going out of business, retiring or just selling off a portion of his property.

One has to wonder at the north land farmers' negative reaction to the good fortune of one of their neighboring landholders.

An entirely different consideration: Why would this upsetting sale lead to an attack on hunting and hunters as a means of retaliation? Hunters and fishermen had little if anything to do with the sale and presumably have no more influence over it than any other citizen. We should think that closing all the surrounding land to hunting would bring opposition to the attack on the sale by politicians and north Milk River farmers rather than opposition to the sale itself.

Wild animals and fish, after all, do not belong to the landowners whose property or waters they roam.

Nor do they belong to the government — although the government quite reasonably imposes controls over regulations on hunting and fishing rights, imposing take limits, requiring hunting and fishing licenses and so on.

If we think of wild creatures as belonging to anyone, it would be the American people as a whole, fulfilling our collective delight in viewing such creatures and the great pleasure some citizens take in hunting and fishing.

Even beyond joy and delight is the physical exercise hunters get in pursuing creatures and that the public gets in visiting parks, lakes and rivers and other areas frequented by wildlife. To say nothing of the inestimable value to the world of having such fellow creatures at all.

What right, then, do individual ranchers have to deny completely the right of access of hunters to hunt on their land at all? Owning land is a great right and privilege, but it comes with certain responsibilities and obligations as well as legal and cultural. At present, in the United States, hunters have no legal right to hunt on anyone's land who wants to deny them that right.

The same circumstance is not true in every location around the world.

However, even though farm owners have no legal obligation to allow hunters on their land, we would suggest that they do have a cultural and social obligation to do so. One of the basic and most appealing beauties of our country is the great abundance of wildlife.

Imposing unnecessary and unreasonable restrictions on our general ability to enjoy this most wonderful of our country's assets is disturbing at best. It's not exaggerating to say that for many people hunting and fishing provide the greatest enjoyment they have of our environment.

Our culture and our love of country is based in the United States a great deal on our joy and involvement in our beautiful surroundings.

Hunting and fishing are among the most widespread ways that cultural enjoyment is exercised and shared by all of us.

Furthermore, there is much joy in the social aspects of hunting and fishing. When I was a boy, both my brothers and I — to say nothing of my mother and, of course, my father — looked forward with delight to hunting/fishing season so we could get off our own familiar home ranch to hunt, fish and explore new areas in the splendid mountains at our wonderful fishing reservoirs in the ever-exciting and scenic Milk River Valley.

All of this visiting of new territory was only possible because of the courtesy and generosity of our neighbors. We always treated other people's land with care and sought their permission and followed their restrictions on particular areas where their domestic animals were located.

It is very likely that many such visits to novel and exciting new areas would not have occurred without the motivations of hunting and fishing.

I would suggest that landowners in the state have a particular obligations to allow hunters and fishermen some reasonable access — restricted and controlled, of course, as necessary — to their properties as both a cultural and social obligation.

After all, how many hunters and fishermen affected the land sale out north. Why are they being picked out victimized? It is rather like the young boy who is punished by his parents and then sneaks out and punches out his completely innocent little sister. It is time to quit pouting and retaliating against innocent bystanders over this matter and allow political and legal challenges to take their course.

Why not just be neighborly?

(Bill Thackeray is a professor-emeritus at Montana State University-Northern.)


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