July 13, 2022
Montana Fish, Wildlife, & Parks
c/o Ken McDonald
P.O. Box 200701
Helena, MT 59620
RE: Habitat Conservation Lease Agreements EA
Dear Mr. McDonald,
I’m submitting this letter on behalf of the Montana Chapter of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers (MT BHA) and our nearly 3,000 dues-paying in-state members. While we broadly support efforts to provide vital habitat for wildlife in this state, we believe this new lease program proposal is misguided and wholly unnecessary. This program is expensive, duplicative, barely enforceable, and runs counter to the best tool already available to landowners: the existing Habitat Montana program. For these reasons, we oppose this leasing program and support Alternative A: no action.
The proposal would take $25-35 million dollars from Habitat Montana, Pittman Robertson Restoration, and other sources to fund temporary 30- or 40-year leases that could be terminated at any time, with a small penalty. Though these leases run with the property, both the seller or the new buyer could terminate them at a fraction of the purchase price. Essentially, if someone wants out of the lease, all they would have to do is pay out the remaining years and 25 percent of the agreement payment. As property values increase and land becomes more attractive, these payouts will be less and less prohibitive as they’re already low at just 5-10 percent of the property’s value, and the buyouts do not take into consideration property values increasing over time. The penalty for terminating the lease could have little teeth. Ultimately, we worry that many landowners will take advantage of this program to use land as they have already been using it, with little consequence should they choose to sell to someone willing to terminate the lease. In other words, we see little value in this new proposal, especially considering the numerous short-term programs that currently exist to incentivize property owners to conserve lands.
We also fear that at a payout of just 5-10 percent of the property’s value – if this becomes the preferred method for Habitat Montana easements – this will likely fall short of what many Montana’s agricultural families will need to keep their properties and will lead to more subdividing and development.
Alternatively, the sportsmen- and women-funded Habitat Montana has been in existence since 1987 and offers substantial value to landowners while requiring no general fund money or outside money. Instead, the incredibly popular program uses license dollars to purchase permanent conservation easements, to the benefit of both the hunting public and Montanan’s working landowners. Instead of something that could be sold or rescinded for a nominal fee, these easements specifically help preserve habitat that is beneficial to working families, to wildlife and to livestock in perpetuity. To date, some 339,194 private acres have been preserved in perpetuity under this program. These easements run with the land and will keep Montana’s families, farms, ranches and wildlife on the landscape. It would be egregiously wrong to take money from this program (which also helps fund Wildlife Management Area acquisitions and new fishing access sites) and spend it in a way that won't last and likely won’t make a significant enough impact for Montana’s landowners to gain much traction.
We recognize and appreciate the many private landowners who have utilized Habitat Montana to continue to provide habitat and we recognize the value of keeping working lands conserved for current and future generations, even in the short term. But this leasing program is a step backward and an expensive temporary approach that likely won’t change much on the ground. We implore the department to maintain the use of Habitat Montana dollars for their intended purpose, and not implement this program. We support Alternative A: no action.
We appreciate your careful consideration,
Jake Schwaller, Billings, MT
Eastern Montana Board Member
Montana Chapter of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers
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