Meagher County ranch proposes $7.5M land sale to U.S. Forest Service

Montanans often say they want more and better access to public land, but are state and county leaders willing to improve access when given the chance?

That’s the question unexpectedly playing out in Meagher County, where a landowner recently proposed to sell almost 4,300 acres to the Lewis and Clark National Forest.

Representatives of the national forest recently presented the proposal to the Meagher County commissioners, explaining that the Holmstrom Sheep Creek Ranch had offered to sell its property north of White Sulphur Springs to the U.S. Forest Service for $7.5 million. The property is listed at that price on several real estate sites.

Belt Creek Deputy District Ranger Allison Kolbe said the Forest Service could get the money from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, which collects royalties from offshore oil and gas drilling. The Forest Service would have to apply for the funds, so in the meantime, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation could act as a land trust, holding the property until the money was secured.

The big plus of the acquisition would be the public access achieved by allowing the national forest to consolidate its land. The Holmstrom property has a checkerboard shape that harkens back to the land sales promoted by the 19th century Homestead Acts, so the ranch owns sections that alternate with Forest Service land and one section of state land.

That means the public can’t access about 7,000 acres of those landlocked public sections without trespassing on private land.

So many locals are excited about the prospect of not only turning the ranch into public land but also improving access to the rest of the national forest to the north. The vast majority of the 86 comments on the “Into the Little Belts” Facebook page post were in favor of the deal.

“This is a very important acquisition. I stay the entire hunting season camping and hunting in the Little Belt Mountains. With private land getting less desirable to hunt on, this would benefit all. Recreation pays the bills in White Sulphur Springs,” wrote Larry Kiefer.

However, the county commissioners weren’t as enthusiastic at last week’s meeting, saying they didn’t want to depend on Secure Rural Schools and Payment-in-Lieu of Taxes payments from the federal government. Both programs pay counties in recognition of the fact that private landowners aren’t paying property taxes into county coffers on land owned by the federal government.

The loss of taxes may be just one reason the commission is reluctant to add more land to the national forest. Over the past few years, Republicans in some states have lobbied for selling off federal land for a variety of reasons, including the desire to reduce the federal government. They argue locals should get to decide how nearby land is managed.

In 2018, the National Association of Counties voted to support a policy where “counties should be fully involved as affected partners in any process to consider the disposal, transfer or purchase of public lands or acquisition of private lands to become public within a county’s jurisdiction.”

But so far, county commissions have no authority to stop private land sales. For example, Missoula County recently experienced a similar situation when Plum Creek Timber sold millions of acres to the Forest Service as part of the Legacy Project, also with the help of the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

“Typically, the only time we get involved in those sorts of transactions is if there’s a conservation easement proposed for the land parcel,” said Missoula County Chief Planning Officer Pat O’Herron. “We consider it a private land transaction, and normally, we’d never see it.”

But some national forest supervisors tend to defer to county commissioners’ endorsements or lack thereof. That’s what supporters of the Holmstrom sale are worried about.

“Into the Little Belts” page editor Charley Willett wrote, “If the local commissioners do not support this acquisition, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and the United States Forest Service will not see this purchase through.”

However, on Tuesday, supporters may yet have a chance to sway the commissioners. They’ve been given the chance to speak at the end of the commission meeting so they’re rallying people to speak in favor of the transaction.

On Monday, members of the Missoula-based Backcountry Hunters and Anglers were scrambling to throw their support behind the project.

“It looks like a pretty impressive acquisition, especially in that checkerboarded country there. I’ve not spent a lot of time up there but I’ve spent enough to know that, especially where that is, there’s some pretty impressive elk habitat,” said BHA representative Doug Krings. “It was an area of contentious access until the elk became overpopulated. There’s been good access since, but now they’re looking at perpetual access.”

This wouldn’t be the first time such a land transaction took place in the same area.

Just north of the Holmstrom property, another landowner, the Bair Ranch Foundation, sold their 8,220-acre Tenderfoot Creek property to the Lewis and Clark National Forest over the course of eight years. Again with the support of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, the national forest used the LWCF to pay $10 million to preserve the property for trout, elk, mule deer, moose, black bear and people.

In 2012, the Meagher County commissioners endorsed the Tenderfoot project.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.