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Guest column: Clearing a way for easements, land acquisition

by By Greg Hertz
| February 4, 2021 12:15 AM

Greetings from Helena. During the last couple of weeks I’ve had two pieces of legislation generate well over 1,500 emails or messages to me either in support or opposition. One of those bills was SB 111, which would allow disabled hunters to use crossbows during archery season, and the other was SB 115.

SB 115, brought by Sen. Keith Regier of Kalispell, is an act clarifying the process for easements and land acquisition made by the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. From 1992 until 2018 all land acquisitions and easements with a large price tag went through the FWP Commission and then moved onto the State Land Board for final review. That process worked very well for over 25 years and reflected the intent of the Legislature to have the Land Board — made up of Montana’s top five elected officials — review decisions from the FWP Commission. The FWP Commission is made up of members appointed by just one person: the governor.

In 2018, the Land Board delayed voting on a major $6 million easement when some of their questions about the purchase hadn’t been answered. Gov. Bullock then took the issue of Land Board approval to the Montana Supreme Court and the court ruled that the law Montana had been following for over 25 years did not apply to easements and gave the governor authority to proceed with the easement without Land Board approval.

What SB 115 does is clarify that easements and land acquisitions over a certain size and dollar amount must proceed from the FWP Commission to the Land Board for final approval. That’s the same process Montana followed for over 25 years without problems related to these easements and land purchases. The bill simply corrects statutory language to meet the corrections needed in regard to the 2018 Montana Supreme Court case, so we get back to business as usual and follow the Legislature’s intent with that law. It’s important on these large expenditures of money that the Land Board, which is directly accountable to Montana voters, have the final say. This will result in making sure that these acquisitions and easements benefit the greatest number of people in Montana.

You can contact me in Helena at greg.hertz@mtleg.gov or call me at 406-253-9505.

Montana Sen. Greg Hertz resides in Polson and represents Senate District 6.