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Friday, March 23, 2018

 photo courtesy of Marissa Perry/Office of Gov. Steve Bullock

Local rep's new public access easement grant program hailed

By Jason Stuart

Ranger-Review Staff Writer

While often in diametric opposition to each other, Montana sportsmen’s groups and landowner’s groups have apparently found something they can agree on in a new public easement acquisition program created by a bill introduced this past legislative session by Dawson County Rep. Alan Doane.

The new Montana Public Land Access Network, or MT-PLAN for short, was created by virtue of the passage this past legislative session of HB 597, introduced by Doane and signed into law by Gov. Steve Bullock. The bill creates a voluntary contribution account and grant program which will be administered by the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation to purchase public access easements to open up public lands for recreational purposes and complete projects that enhance existing public access sites across Montana.

Bullock offered up praise for the new program.

“We are blessed here in Montana to have access to millions of acres of public lands, but there’s always more we can do to increase that access. Access to public lands is essential for present and future generations of Montanans from all walks of life, and it’s essential for our economy,” Bullock said. “The MT-PLAN provides an opportunity for Montanans to help us gain access to even more of Montana’s public lands.”

The bill and new program have also garnered wide-ranging support from two camps — sportsmen and landowners — more often at loggerheads with each other than not. Sportsmen’s and conservation groups from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF) to the Montana Wildlife Federation have voiced their support for the program, with several already donating funds to MT-PLAN. The RMEF this week cut a check for $25,000 to help kickstart the new easement purchase grant program.

“Access to quality wildlife habitat is one of the most important challenges facing hunters in Montana. All too often, land ownership patterns prevent hunters and other recreationists from accessing public lands in Montana,” said RMEF president and CEO David Allen. “RMEF has helped address this problem by opening or securing public access to nearly 300,000 acres in Montana through key acquisitions and easements. The Montana Land Access Network will provide a critical funding source to help the state, conservation organizations and private landowners work together to secure even more access. We are pleased to make a significant contribution to the Network’s fund.”

Doane pointed out that his bill was not only supported by sportsmen’s groups, but by a wide range of landowner and property rights groups too, including the United Property Owners of Montana, the Montana Stockgrowers Association and the Montana Farm Bureau. He said pretty much everyone on both sides seemed to think his bill was a good idea.

“There were all proponents for the bill, there were no opponents,” Doane said.

Doane said his inspiration for introducing the bill was that he wanted to do something to help open up access to landlocked public lands in Montana, but in a way that private property owners could get on board with.

“Every session there’s some bills that come through that are trying to gain access to public land, but the government is always trying to force people,” he said. “This is just a program to entice people. There’s no heavyhandedness in this program.”

Doane added that he felt a good sense of accomplishment in bringing sportsmen’s groups and landowner groups together in agreement on a public lands access issue.

“That’s great. That’s a big part of what I was trying to do. There’s been a wedge (between sportsmen and landowners),” Doane said. “The country’s divided, let’s be real about that, so it’s nice and refreshing to bring both sides together. And I believe that unity is accomplished because there’s no force here, it’s all voluntary.”

He said for sportsmen and other outdoors enthusiasts who are concerned about public access to landlocked public lands, the MT-PLAN gives them the opportunity to directly contribute to opening up more public access.

“If they want to increase access to public lands and if they want to be part of the solution, here’s your opportunity,” Doane said.

He further noted that hunters aren’t the only ones who could benefit from the new program.

“It’s for any landlocked public land that’s open to the public and that’s open for all lawful purposes,” Doane said. “So it isn’t just for hunting, it’s also for hikers or whatever, though I assume hunters will be the bulk of the users.”

For landowners, he said the MT-PLAN gives them a way to open up more public lands to their fellow Montanans that benefits them financially.

“(The easement contracts) are from three years up to permanent and you can negotiate your own contract,” Doane said. “It’s a chance to make some additional revenue and that revenue is tax free for the state’s purposes.”

Bullock and the DNRC have designated a new Public Access Specialist to coordinate the MT-PLAN and to help identify and negotiate potential easement acquisitions. However, Doane said another part of the beauty of the new program is the push for easement acquisition doesn’t have to come from the state government. He said as hunters and other outdoors enthusiasts are out on the landscape, if they come across a piece of landlocked public land they’d like to gain access to, the MT-PLAN gives them the power to begin the process of trying to negotiate easements with the surrounding landowner.

“Any individual or organization can go to the DNRC and apply for those grants,” Doane said. “The government doesn’t have to do it for you.”

To learn more about the MT-PLAN or to make a contribution, visit the DNRC website at www.dnrc.mt.gov/divisions/trust/mt-plan.

Reach Jason Stuart at rrreporter@rangerreview.com.

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