Bill would remove outfitter exclusivity on state lands

A state legislator wants public hunters to have the same access as outfitters to isolated state-trust lands, but no one knows how much land that actually would affect.

On Thursday, Rep. Tom Jacobson, D-Great Falls, used a familiar justification for his bill, House Bill 243, which would prevent hunting outfitters from having sole access to landlocked parcels of state-trust land.

“It’s a bill about equity,” Jacobson told the House Fish, Wildlife & Parks committee. “This identifies what public lands are, who they belong to and who should profit from them.”

Those are almost the exact words Jacobson used in the 2015 Legislature while sponsoring an identical bill, HB 352, in the House Natural Resources Committee chaired by Rep. Kerry White, R-Bozeman. That committee tabled HB 352 for the same reasons that will probably kill this year’s bill: private-property rights.

The bill would prohibit the state from issuing outfitting recreation licenses for parcels of state land with no public access. Additionally, it would fine any landowner who allowed only outfitters to access an adjoining state parcel leased by the landowner. The fine would be not less than $500.

Jacobson used a 2016 FWP report to point out that 1.2 million acres of landlocked state land is inaccessible to the public unless landowners give permission. But landowners are unlikely to give permission if outfitters are paying them to keep the land closed or if they outfit themselves.

“I don’t think it’s fair that (a landowner) can lease out his property for outfitting, and oh, by the way, I’ve got this section of state land here, too, that (the outfitters) can hunt because they’re going to get access to it,” Jacobson said. “I don’t think (landowners) should profit off the state land, because I don’t get a share of that and you don’t get a share of that.”

Opponents of the bill – mostly landowners’ groups – pointed out that the state actually gets a share of that because the state collects the recreation license fees. They said the state would lose out on those fees if outfitters didn’t pay the fees of between 20 and 30 cents an acre.

But in the ensuing debate, it was clear no one knew how much money the state would actually lose. Committee members and those testifying rattled off statistics that didn’t always jibe.

Landowners lease most state land for grazing or logging, so the bill would not affect that money.

The $127,000 raised annually through outfitting licenses would be reduced, but by how much? At an average of 25 cent a parcel, outfitters lease about 500,000 acres or more than 780 sections to raise $127,000. A section is 640 acres.

However, Jeanne Johnson of the Montana Outfitters and Guides said outfitters had only 130 state-land licenses in 2016. Assuming that equates to 130 full sections, outfitters licenses raised only about $20,800 in 2016.

Trust Lands Administrator Sean Thomas of the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation said his agency didn’t know how many sections are inaccessible or how many of those are leased by outfitters. A lot of assumptions – including a guess that one-third of outfitters’ parcels are inaccessible - were made when the agency estimated in the fiscal note that the state would lose more than $36,000 a year, Thomas said.

Regardless of the amount, said Nicole Rolf of the Montana Farm Bureau Federation, state lands are supposed to raise money for schools, and any loss hurts rural school districts.

But most opponents raised the private-property rights argument, saying that a landowner should be allowed to choose whom to allow on their land. Jacobson said he wasn’t arguing against property rights; his point was that the landowner shouldn’t then be allowed to profit from denying access to some in favor of others.

Shelby DeMars, United Property Owners of Montana spokeswoman, said landowners should be paid, which is why the 2015 Legislature set aside some Habitat Montana money to buy conservation easements to provide access to public land.

“There is an agenda coming out of some groups trying to push free access on landowners,” DeMars said.

Ben Lamb, spokesman for one of the accused groups, the Montana Wildlife Federation, said hunters can help keep elk numbers down only if hunters can get to elk herds.

“We pay for those (state) lands, but we can’t use them,” Lamb said.

If outfitters have a non-exclusive license on a state parcel as opposed to an exclusive one, hunters can still use the parcel too, Johnson said.

They can’t if they can’t get access from a landowner, Jacobson said. He added that he’d be happy to sponsor a state-land fee for hunters to offset the loss of outfitters’ licenses.

“No one is telling landowners what they can and can’t do with their property. But we as the public are saying this is public land and we should have a say over who gets to access our land and whether we get to access it. And that’s the core of the issue,” Jacobson said.