By Pete Geddes, Vice President and Chief External Relations Officers – American Prairie Reserve
Northern Ag Network recently published an opinion piece by Rep. Dan Bartel, who has introduced legislation to prohibit nonprofit organizations from buying agricultural land in Montana. Throughout his piece, Mr. Bartel explicitly cites American Prairie Reserve as an intended target of this bill.
Mr. Bartel’s legislation amounts to an unconstitutional government overreach into the private exchange of property between willing sellers and buyers. It empowers the government to dictate who private property owners can and cannot sell their land to. It denies an entire class of landowners the basic property right of buying and owning land. Every Montana landowner should be alarmed by the dangerous precedent this sets.
American Prairie pays fair value to willing sellers for our private properties. We are a nonprofit that is purchasing and restoring private lands that connect with existing public lands, with the goal of stitching together a prairie ecosystem. We want the Reserve to be a refuge for wildlife and people at a time when access to both private and public lands is diminishing.
There are more than 58 million acres of farms and ranches in Montana. 62% of all land in the state is agricultural land. The agricultural community isn’t going anywhere, and we don’t want it to. We support private, market-based approaches to conservation that keep working lands working.
In addition to partnering with ranchers to provide financial incentives for wildlife-friendly land management practices, we also currently lease grass to more than a dozen local ranchers on nearly all of our properties in Phillips, Valley, Fergus, Blaine, Chouteau, and Petroleum counties. These are multi-year offerings providing certainty for established livestock producers, and opportunity for those seeking to enter the business.
We pay property taxes on these lands, just like every other private landowner in Montana. Those who suggest otherwise are misinformed. From 2015 to 2019, we spent more than $11 million in Reserve area communities – on things like local sourcing, hiring local contractors, employing staff in the region, and paying local taxes.
Across the state, nonprofits have used voluntary land purchases to protect working lands, expand public access to public lands, and safeguard outdoor opportunities for all Montanans. By limiting competition, this legislation may exacerbate the trend of wealthy out-of-state landowners purchasing large tracts of land and limiting public access opportunities.
We aim to open up as much of our property to visitors as possible so that Montanans can hunt, fish, hike, camp, stargaze, and explore. We offer lodging options in a range of affordable price points. Last year, we included 64,000 acres of our private deeded land in Montana’s block management program for hunting, and we opened up access to more than 3,000 acres of state and federal land that has been almost entirely inaccessible for over forty years. We also hosted a record number of visitors looking to find an outdoor respite during the coronavirus pandemic.
This isn’t a new idea. Mr. Bartel’s bill is based on failed legislation introduced in 2013 which drew immediate opposition from landowners because of its potentially crippling impact across the state. The bill is just as dangerous today.
We understand that some people, including Mr. Bartel, do not agree with the choices we’re making with respect to our private property. Disagreeing with our approach is one thing. Using that to justify wielding the power of the government to limit and control the activities of an entire class of property owners is quite another.