August 15, 2001
Contact: Lucas Hamilton
Half of state school trust lands lack public access Morrison to propose deferred land exchange program
Nearly 50 percent of Montana's school trust lands are wholly surrounded by private property, according to a study commissioned by the State Auditor's Office.
A study of state school trust lands in 11 counties revealed that 10 percent of the land is surrounded by one private landowner, while 37 percent is surrounded by multiple private landowners. The project examined 866,674 acres or 17 percent of state school trust land.
"We want to use this data to find ways to increase revenue to the school land trust while helping landowners and recreationists get optimum use of the land for its intended purpose," said State Auditor John Morrison.
Results of the State Trust Lands Accessibility Status Project were presented Wednesday to Land Board staff members.
Morrison plans to use the data to revisit a deferred land exchange program first proposed by former State Auditor Mark O'Keefe in 1996. The program would involve willing landowners trading accessible parcels of land for the state trust land that is surrounded by or adjacent to the landowner's property. He also will explore the need for legislation to facilitate the program.
"This data will be a wonderful tool for the department and will be helpful in developing a workable program," Morrison said. "We hope the knowledgeable staff at the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation will be able to use the data to identify parcels of land that would be a good trade for the state."
"These kinds of exchanges are good for three reasons," Morrison said. "It increases revenue to the school land trust by establishing a competitive bidding process. It benefits area landowners by giving them an opportunity to bid on state lands. And it benefits all Montanans who recreate on state lands."
Land with one surrounding landowner brings minimal income to the school trust and typically limits or prevents public access to the land. In Wheatland County, 20 percent of state school trust land is surrounded by one private landowner. Fourteen percent of trust land in Lewis and Clark and Garfield counties is surrounded by one landowner.
Morrison is working on a plan that would reduce the administrative costs and hassles for landowners.
"We want to develop an inexpensive, smooth and easy process for the landowners," Morrison said. "I look forward to working with other land board members and the department as we move forward with this process."
The project found that 49 percent of state trust lands do not have public access. The percentage varies greatly by county with non-accessible acreage as high as 78 percent in Treasure County.
In Cascade County, 36 percent of state trust lands do not have public access. In Lewis and Clark County that number rises to 54 percent, and is 72 percent in Garfield County.
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