On Monday, the Montana Land Board agreed to accept a donation of land to guarantee access to public land along the Blackfoot River near Clearwater Junction.
Two miles east of Clearwater Junction, South Sperry Grade Road is just 1.2 miles long, but it provides access from Highway 200 south to the Bear Creek Bridge on the Blackfoot River.
The northern 0.6 miles of road either crosses or skirts along the west side of a section of the Clearwater State Forest before it crosses into Bureau of Land Management property. The last 0.7 miles to the bridge belongs to the BLM, and only nonmotorized access is allowed there because a previous private landowner placed a conservation easement on the area.
Just before it reaches BLM land, about 330 yards of the road runs through a long 60-foot-wide stretch of private property owned by Ruth and Don Johnson.
Because the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation tries to guarantee access to state trust land, especially if the land contains cabin lease sites being considered for sale, DNRC employees approached the Johnsons a few years ago about agreeing to a permanent easement. The state owns seven cabin lease sites along the road, five of which depend on Johnson’s section of road for access.
The Johnsons had concerns about liability, according to DNRC documents. So they offered to donate the land to the state as long as neighboring residents would be guaranteed access across the road.
In November 2019, the DNRC appraised the property at $4,500.
On Monday, the five members of the Land Board were in favor of accepting the donation. But they raised questions about how the road might be used in the future.
Because the road provides access to both DNRC and BLM land, the two agencies will have to work out a formal agreement on the use of the road.
DNRC documents said the agreement would specify that the BLM would manage the road and pay to maintain it, and a parking area will be provided so the public can access the nonmotorized portion on BLM land.
Secretary of State Austin Knudsen questioned whether the agreement meant the state portion of the road would be nonmotorized also.
“Two things are catching my eye and giving me some heartburn here: a nonmotorized restriction and the fact that it’s through a conservation easement,” Knudsen said. “The BLM is free to do whatever it wants with its own conservation easements. The question I have is are we going to turn around and encumber this potential new piece of land and cover it with BLM’s nonmotorized conservation easement?”
Knudsen asked why the state had to enter an agreement with the BLM if the state didn’t need access from the BLM.
DNRC Bureau Chief Ryan Weiss said the agreement would make sure the BLM paid for road maintenance but wouldn’t require the state to limit motorized access on the newly acquired section of road.
Weiss said he would update the Land Board once the agreement was finalized.
The Land Board also voted to open up 18 DNRC cabin lease sites in Missoula County for sale. Fourteen sites are along the Clearwater River and four are on Lake Placid. The people currently leasing the sites nominated all the parcels, and the Land Board gave preliminary approval of the sales in April 2020.
According to DNRC documents, the leases for the Clearwater River properties are between $4,000 and $6,000 a year while Lake Placid sites bring in between $20,000 and $25,000 a year. The sites have brought in more than $3 million for Montana State University.
If the sites sell, the state will collect about $125,000 for Clearwater River sites plus the value of any property improvements, while Lake Placid sites will bring in $350,000 and $550,000 plus the value of improvement. The money will go toward purchasing new lands for public access and recreational opportunity, according to DNRC documents.
State auditor Troy Downing said all DNRC cabin site sales should be put on hold because the prices and process don’t reflect market forces. DNRC predictions show all the sites continuing to increase in value into the future. He was the only Land Board member to vote against the sales.
“It’s been clear that we have no market forces in the bidding of these, and it’s not in the interest of the state,” Downing said.
Gov. Greg Gianforte said the Land Board was limited by the Legislature to approving sales the way they’re currently run. Any change would have to be passed by the Legislature first.