Montana Supreme Court: Land Board has no say in FWP conservation easements

The Montana Land Board will no longer be able to weigh in on conservation easements proposed by Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, the Montana Supreme Court decided on Tuesday.

The high court issued its decision that Attorney General Tim Fox was wrong in his opinion that the Land Board had to approve any proposed conservation easement of more than 100 acres or which costs more than $100,000.

The Supreme Court heard arguments on Dec. 5 and many justices indicated they considered the case brought by Gov. Steve Bullock to be a simple matter of who had ultimate authority, and what the law meant when it referred to “land acquisition.”

The order issued Tuesday was signed by six of seven justices and indicated that a full opinion would follow shortly, explaining their reasoning.

The only signature missing was that of Laurie McKinnon. McKinnon had asked Bullock attorney Raphael Greybill several questions about legislative intent regarding the word “land acquisition.”

The FWP commission now has final authority on which conservation easements will qualify for Habitat Montana money.

“The truth is, this case never had to happen,” Bullock said in a statement. “We were only in the position of needing a court decision because the attorney general chose personal ambition and party politics over Montana ranchers, hunters and anglers. I deeply appreciate the court taking this up quickly, and am hopeful we can now get back to allowing the Habitat Montana program to serve our state, as it has for decades.”

The case was prompted by the Land Board’s tabling in April of the proposed $6.15 million Horse Creek easement. Prior to that, the land board had simply heard of each easement and gave its approval.

Claiming land board overreach, Bullock approved the easement on his own authority, prompting a Republican legislator to ask Fox for an opinion regarding Bullock’s action.

In his Oct. 15 memo, Fox gave the land board the same authority over easements that it had over fee-title purchases.

Bullock appealed directly to the state Supreme Court to decide whether Fox was correct. The Public Land and Water Association and the Anaconda Sportsmen’s Club joined with Bullock in the lawsuit supporting the authority of the FWP commission to decide whether conservation easements were appropriate.