Milk River Ranch Deal “Misuse of Public Funds”
Critics Blame Former Governor Schweitzer and FWP
BY PAT HILL
Despite some last-minute legal action in December by a Bozeman attorney meant to deter the state of Montana from making a controversial land purchase, the sale of the Milk River Ranch northwest of Havre was a done deal by the end of 2012, but controversy continues.
The sale of the 4,505-acre Milk River Ranch on Montana's Hi-Line in Hill County for a total of $5.8 million closed on Dec. 19. The property, 42 miles northwest of Havre, borders Canada, and the Milk River slices its way through the ranch. The state's Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) purchased 1,513 acres of the ranch, which will be leased back to previous owners Dave and Verges Aageson; the other 2,992 acres, including Milk River frontage, was paid for by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks for $4.7 million, and will be used as a Wildlife Management Area.
The deal, in the works for several months, had drawn opposition from sportsmen the land is meant to benefit, to surrounding landowners who claim the purchase price was inflated and may adversely affect their tax liabilities, and from others who say the purchase process was rushed through. But former Governor Brian Schweitzer praised the proposed purchase last April in a speech to the state's land board, which he then chaired.
“This land, if we could acquire it, would be a gathering place for all of Montana for generations to come,” Schweitzer told his fellow Land Board members during that April speech. “This may be one of the most extraordinary things the Land Board has done…I just think this is an extraordinary opportunity.” But many others are not so sure that this opportunity made good is so extraordinary.
“The purpose of this purchase was for recreational value…for hunting and fishing, but it's not good hunting and there's no fishing,” Rep. Kerry White (R-Bozeman) told the Pioneer in January. White is also a board member of the group Citizens for Balanced Use, whose stated goal is responsible shared use of public lands. The group was one of those entities opposing the Milk River Ranch purchase from the get-go. The FWP ranks properties it is interested in purchasing, and though the Milk River Ranch was ranked 15th out of 15 properties FWP was looking at acquiring, White said it managed to rise to the top of the priority list somehow.
“Because of that purchase we lost out on real opportunities at the other properties,” White said. The Land Board unanimously approved the purchase in November, and the FWP Commission approved the purchase with a 4-1 vote on Dec. 10. The Milk River Ranch purchase exhausted existing Habitat Montana funds FWP uses to buy wildlife management areas. Those funds are raised through the purchase of hunting and fishing licenses.
“I think it was probably a misuse of funds,” said Mike Vance, of Bozeman, who serves on the board of directors for the Montana Chapter of Pheasants Forever. “They've taken money meant to improve hunting and fishing and they have in reality reduced hunting and fishing for sportsmen with this move.” He told the Pioneer the purchase of the Milk River Ranch with Habitat Montana funds has seriously eroded FWP's credibility with sportsmen.
“There's no habitat for game up there,” Vance said. “Any place you had an opportunity to maintain cover for game birds and animals is done in by the lease-back to the Aagesons.”
Opponents of the deal included Milk River area ranchers like Dave and Verges Aageson's cousin Mark Aageson, whose land borders the Milk River Ranch; he wrote to FWP during a public comment period regarding the purchase, questioning the price and the proposal to manage the bulk of the property as a Wildlife Management Area. Aageson wrote that finding an elk to shoot on the Milk River Ranch is “completely by luck or by locals who spend enormous amounts of time there…”
“How you can establish recrea-tional value at $1,900 an acre…with limited elk [hunting] and no fishing…I find that to be suspect,” Mark Aageson told the Independent Record, referring to the parcel of land purchased by FWP. “I cannot emphasis enough how I find this to be a misuse of taxpayer dollars.” But Mary Sexton, DNRC Director, told the Bozeman Daily Chronicle that the state's ownership of the seven miles of Milk River frontage contained in the Milk River Ranch purchase is “valuable and unique.”
“It's an exceptional piece of property,” Sexton told the Chronicle. “It's the largest accessible stretch of land on the Milk River.”
“There's only one road in, a gravel road through which access is not guaranteed,” countered Vance. “It is not good habitat for wildlife. I think this deal was low-keyed through…I don't think they wanted anyone to know about it…I think they wanted to hurry it through.” Vance also said the deal was essentially done “backwards,” with the Land Board approving the move before FWP. Though the Land Board's approval was contingent upon approval by FWP, Vance questions why normal protocol wasn't followed in this instance.
“We need to keep this in the forefront. Someone needs to pay the political price,“ said Vance “Right now FWP has no credibility with the sportsmen.”
Sportsmen have also lost hunting and fishing access in the Milk River region as a result of the Milk River Ranch purchase. Seventeen landowners in Hill County announced they were closing access to about 50,000 acres of their property for public hunting and fishing in the wake of the FWP Commission's December decision. Hill County rancher Dan Redding, a plaintiff in the case to block University research funds being used at the Milk River Ranch, told the Associated Press that the move is “kind of our way of pushing back.”
“We're just opposing the way that the Fish and Game Commission and state Land Board pretty much disregarded any of the public opinions and opposition to this project,” Redding told the AP. A formal request to extend the comment period until this month, a recommen-ded second appraisal of the property, and a request regarding details about the state's ranking process were all denied.
More landowners have since shut down access in the area, adding up to about 100,000 acres of lost access for Montana sportsmen. Although many of those acres were already closed to hunters and fishermen, and the sale of the property is already a done deal, the protest is perhaps more symbolic than substantive, but other questions remain about the state's acquisition of the Milk River Ranch.
“What was the real purpose of this purchase?” White asked. “I think it was a deal made between the governor and FWP to benefit the Aageson family. From what I've heard that deal was made over a campfire with a bottle of Crown Royal.”
Schweitzer shrugged off allegations that the Milk River Ranch purchase was a sweetheart deal of sorts. Schweitzer's grandparents homesteaded next to the Aagesons, and both of the governor's grandparents are buried near the Aageson property. But Schweitzer, whose grandfather died before he was born, and whose grandmother died when he was five years old, grew up 150 miles away from his grandparents' Milk River area homestead, and the governor said he does not know many people in that area as a result.
“Anyone who said I grew up with them [the Aagesons] is a liar,” Schweitzer told the Helena Indepen-dent Record. “A 100 percent liar.”
The governor said he first met Verges Aageson in the late '90s, when he was serving on the Farm Service Agency (FSA) and Aageson appealed an FSA decision. He later met both brothers while serving as governor, when, in 2006, they told him about a “living lab” they were conducting on their property in conjunction with Notre Dame Univer-sity and Native Americans, with the goal being to broaden Indian educational opportunities at Notre Dame.
Both Dave and Verges worked at Schweitzer-appointed positions within Montana state government after that 2006 meeting. Dave was appointed to the Board of Investments in 2011, Verges to the Agricultural Development Council in 2010, and Verges' son Chris worked in the governor's Office of Economic Devel-opment from January of 2006 to December of 2011. Dave and Verges Aageson and their families contributed $2,810 to the Schweitzer campaign in 2008, though Schweitzer told the AP that suggestions any of his 10,000 campaign contributors would receive something in return for their contributions was “frivolous.” Schweitzer told the Pioneer in November that he was the only gubernatorial candidate in recent history not to take special interest money.
“Only a governor could push something like this through,” Rep. Ted Washburn (R-Bozeman) told the Pioneer regarding the Milk River Ranch deal. “Who's going to go up in there— even if they could?” It's just wasteland. But the guy made money on it. And it had to get done before the end of Schweitzer's term, or it never would have happened. The new governor would never do that.” White agrees with Washburn regarding Montana's new governor, the former state's Attorney General Steve Bullock, who served during the Schweitzer administration.
“Now that Schweitzer's gone, I don't think Bullock is too pleased about this deal,” White said. “The new FWP director, Jeff Hagener, is not too pleased with the [strained] relationship between landowners and the FWP that now exists.” But both Republicans think the new Democrat in the governor's seat seems to be more receptive to working with the other side of the aisle so far in this 2013 Legislative Session.
“Every indication is that he wants to get along,” said Washburn. “It's like day and night working with this governor so far. As long as he and his staff want to work, we're going to get things done.”