Sunday, February 28, 2021

SB115 is regulation no one needs, nor wants

by Chris Marchion
| February 14, 2021 12:00 AM

Senator Greg Hertz’s description of SB 115 as a ‘clarification’ needs some clarifying (Daily Inter Lake, Jan. 31). First off, conservation easements are purchased with landowners by the Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks (FWP) through the Habitat Montana program with the intent to protect valuable wildlife habitat. The program is paid for with allocations from Montana hunting licenses. It is about hunters providing for the habitat needs of the wildlife they hunt. Taxpayer dollars are not involved. Property taxes are not affected by these easements.

These easements are only negotiated with landowners who desire to sell these rights to FWP. They often take years to develop, require public review as well as multiple FWP Commission hearings and approval, and signature by the governor. For informational reasons and as a courtesy these proposals have been formally shared with the Land Board. Over time the Land Board began taking votes on these proposals but those votes had no legal authority.

In 2018, a Republican-controlled Land Board failed to approve an easement which had been years in development and was critical to the survival of a generational family agricultural operation. Putting the interests of the family before political interests, the governor completed the easement, which was his legal right. Republicans challenged the governor’s action but their Attorney General’s opinion was declared invalid by the Montana Supreme Court because there was no law to support their claim.

SB 115 is not a clarification; it is a new requirement. It is a requirement that will extend and complicate a process that the users find extensive now. The current process is open for Land Board participation but their input is useful during the process, not at the end. They can participate just as local governments, neighbors, and the public does. Their constructive input would be welcomed but SB 115 does not provide for an improved process.

The landowner community most affected by this program is not supporting SB 115. The hunters who fund Habitat Montana have spoken adamantly in opposition to SB 115. In fact, the only politicians who value this legislation are Republicans, who always claim to be for access but always vote against it. We regularly hear the Republicans claim to be for less burdensome government regulation and yet here they pushing regulation no one needs nor wants.

No family will begin the process of an easement knowing they can have the deal killed at the last minute. These are big, complicated land deals that involve appraisals, attorneys and estate planning. Landowners deserve predictability when they start the process of negotiating an easement with FWP. Hunters want to know their dollars will be spent as they want. This bill would put an end to our best program to provide access and keep working families on their land. SB115 needs to die.

Chris Marchion is a member of the Montana Conservation Hall of Fame with 35 year experience in representing hunting interests in wildlife habitat. He lives in Anaconda.