Joe Perry

Will HB 635 really incentivize nonresident landowners to enroll in public access programs?

That's what Mac Minard, the executive director of the Montana Outfitters and Guides Association, and Frank Szollosi, the executive director of the Montana Wildlife Federation said in an oped. But I found it odd that MOGA would celebrate public access to private lands, so I looked into it.

While HB 635 does add a small carrot (let's call it a baby carrot) for access, that's in the form of a whopping one bonus point per year, for free. And what's the value of said baby carrot? For nonresidents, a bonus point costs $20.

As a reminder, the minimum acreage requirement nonresidents must own in Montana in order to get these elk and deer tags is 2,500 acres. For the absentee landowners with nearly four sections of land, do you think that something valued at $20 will be enough to get them to enroll their property in public access?

I don't either, especially when considering that nonresident landowners are already offered an elk (or deer) tag when they enroll in Block Management (valued at $1,023), and payments of up to $25,000. So if a $1,023 license and up to $25,000 wasn't enough, who are we kidding with an extra $20 value? It's nonsense, and this won’t add a single acre of property enrolled in public access.

In reality, it’ll probably do the opposite. The real public access impact this bill is likely to have is going to be negative, and in a big way. Here's how:

1) As mentioned above, nonresidents landowners are already incentivized for Block Management with a free deer or elk combo tag. Yet HB 635 gives them up to FIVE of those, with nothing expected in return. So any absentee landowner who enrolls in Block Management currently to get that guaranteed tag each year, whelp, there goes any reason for them to continue to offer public access: they can get five times the benefit for allowing nobody on their land if HB 635 is signed by Governor Gianforte.

2) Additionally, aside from the fact that the 454 elk hunting access agreements were negotiated by the Wilks' attorney (who also happens to be the lobbyist for MOGA), when compared to HB 635, those agreements actually do more for public access than this will. The 454s require that a landowner provide at least three members of the public permission to harvest elk on their property.

In return, they're given a free elk license or permit. But with HB 635, landowners who don't live here get up to five elk licenses without requiring them to provide any access at all. So again, there goes any reason for these landowners to continue to offer public access: they can get five times the benefit for allowing no one on their land at all. And this might be why the Wilks' attorney has convinced MOGA that this is a good idea.

As a 4th generation Montana landowner who provides public access without asking for anything in return, I really hope the Governor - who claims to be pro-public access - thinks this through. The outcomes of this bill will undoubtedly be a net loss in public access, perhaps significantly.

I ask Governor Gianforte to veto HB 635, but knowing his relationship with MOGA, PERC, UPOM, the Wilks and other supporters of this idea, I don't have high hopes.