Monday, April 19, 2021

Time to find a way to increase access to Montana state lands

| April 23, 2020 1:00 AM

It’s spring time in Montana and outdoor recreational opportunities abound in great abundance.

If you like to hunt, there is turkey hunting and black bear hunting. If you desire to save a few deer fawns or elk calves, you can provide a public service by going coyote hunting. If you want to just plink a little, try gopher shooting.

Most of our lakes are now ice free or soon will be, so break out your boat and do some fishing.

The main stem of the Flathead River and most sloughs are open to fishing. Whatever you do, always check the regulations to make sure you are legal.

A few years ago, I wanted to go turkey hunting. I decided to hunt the 1,550-acre Kuhns Wildlife Management Area, northwest of Kalispell.

So, I ventured out one morning in early May, dressed in camo, carrying my shotgun and packing some wildlife calls.

It was a beautiful spring morning and a delight just to be out in woods. My turkey hunting success was a flop. I didn’t get a turkey or even see a turkey. But I wondered why I didn’t see any other hunters in this area.

The next week I wrote an outdoor column about my enjoyable experience at Kuhns, but also noted the lack of other hunters. A couple of days later I received a call from the local game warden, who advised me the Kuhns Wildlife Area was closed to all public use from Nov. 30 to May 15. Whoops!

So, again, check the regulations before venturing out.

I recently ran across a publication put out by the Teddy Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. They cooperated with a Missoula based company, OnX. OnX puts out a cellphone app that shows the user (hunter) their location in Montana, topo maps, satellite photos, hunting district boundaries, land ownership and a host of other features extremely helpful to hunters and other outdoor recreationists.

This joint venture or study by the TRCP and OnX was to inventory State lands that did not have legal public access. This study indicated that 1,560,000 acres of state land in Montana have no legal public access.

Wow, that’s a lot of land with a lot of public recreation potential, but no public right of legal access. I believe these state lands with no legal access are almost all State school trust lands.

Back at statehood time, these lands were given to the state by the federal government to produce revenue for building schools and other state institutions. Some states were short-sighted and sold their lands for instant income.

Other states, including Montana, retained most of their state lands, preferring to generate revenue through grazing leases and mineral leases. The COSTCO store

and many other stores north of Kalispell are examples of commercial leases on school trust land.

So, in total Montana has about five million acres of state trust land, commonly referred to as school lands.

These lands were intended to generate revenue, not for public recreation use. It took many years of legislative battles to get a new state law opening all of these school trust lands to public recreation use.

When you buy your Conservation License, $2 of that Fish, Wildlife & Parks fee goes to the general school trust fund. That satisfies the “revenue” aspect of the federal grant.

But the right to recreate on state school trust lands does not guarantee citizens the right of legal access to school lands. One could blame the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation with not providing public access to all state land. But providing public recreation access is not part of their mandate.

Most of the state land is leased to adjoining farmers and ranchers, who do have access to the state land they lease. So, the DNRC has no need to spend school dollars for public access.

It seems to me that FWP should assume the responsibility for providing access to state school lands. Providing public access to wildlife and fish resources is part of FWP’s mandate. FWP does a superb job of providing high quality colored access maps for the seven million acres of private land they lease each year for public hunting, the Block Management program.

This is an annual multi-million dollar program. It would seem prudent to use some block management dollars to begin getting permanent public access to the 1,560,000 acres of state land without legal public access.

If diverting some block management money for accessing state school lands requires legislative authority, let me know.

I know many sportsmen organizations that would get behind this legislative effort.

Montana citizens love their public lands and want better access.