The final transfer of federal lands to the state of Montana to satisfy a debt owed since 1889 has been approved.
The notice of the transaction is set to be published in the Federal Register on Thursday. The lands will be officially transferred this spring.
The Bureau of Land Management will turn over 5,816.63 acres to state ownership. The parcels are located in Custer, Prairie and Richland counties and include native grasslands and sage grouse habitat. In 2018 the BLM approved a separate transfer of 2,120 acres of cropland in Hill and Chouteau counties as partial settlement of the debt.
The federal government incurred the land obligation when Congress passed the Enabling Act, which admitted Montana, Washington, North Dakota and South Dakota to the Union and gave states sections 16 and 36 of each township for schools. Unfortunately for the feds, some of those townships had already been set aside for national parks or Indian reservations, so the BLM inherited a debt to the states to compensate them for the lands.
The first land transfer to the state in 2018 satisfied $1.82 million of the BLM’s $4.1 million debt. The final transaction will settle the balance of the liability.
“After 130 years, the BLM has fulfilled the State of Montana’s final land selections so that revenue from these lands can benefit Montana’s state school trust, and thus the children of Montana,” said John Mehlhoff , BLM Montana/Dakotas state director, in a press release. “I commend the cooperation of our public land partners and permittees in bringing closure to this historic project.”
The deal will put the lands under the management of the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. The agency leases out its lands for grazing and farming and also makes its timber available for harvest. Money raised from such activities go to the state’s school trust fund. For grazing permittees on BLM lands that are being transferred, that will mean an increase in cost since the state charges a higher rate per animal.
“After over 130 years, the completion of this historic effort is a win for Montana schools and our students,” said Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte in the press release.
The work to finalize the deal started in 2015 when Montana gave the BLM a wish list — more than 16,000 acres spread across seven counties. The list identified more areas than needed in order to provide the BLM with some flexibility. Work on the conveyance took so long that the BLM had to receive a two-year extension, and even then couldn’t meet the 2019 deadline.
Documents and background on the final transfer can be viewed at the BLM’s ePlanning website at https://eplanning.blm.gov. Search for National Environmental Policy Act number DOI-BLM-MT-C020-2018-0018-EA.