Montana Outdoors

Feb 20, 2014 10:02 PM by Sanjay Talwani - MTN News

Some state lands could get new public access

HELENA - More than a million acres of Montana state school trust lands do not have public access.

But last year, the Montana Legislature passed a measure that could get the public into some of that, creating a incentives for landowners whose properties lie between recreation-seekers and the trust lands.

The Unlocking State Lands allows landowners may qualify for annual credits of up to $500 per parcel per year, on up to four parcels per landowner, to allow access through their property.

They have until March 15 to apply for the program, and information is on the website of Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks, www.fwp.mt.gov.

FWP spokesman Ron Aasheim said it could mean hunting, fishing, hiking and more on lands that have been inaccessible.

"The big thing here is additional recreational opportunities for Montanans," he said.

Landowners will sign a contract with the state speciying the conditions of the access. For example, some might only want to allow access certain times of year, although the contracts would involve a minimum of six months of access. There could be provisions for closures for specific reasons.

"The idea is to work cooperatively here, in a friendly way, and not to create an imposition," he said. "And it's all up to the landowners as far as what they will agree to."

There will be signs so the public is clear on its rights, and information about the sites will be posted online.

Depending on the contracts with the landowners, access could be limited to foot traffic or non-motorized traffic in some places, with motorized access allowed in others.

The school trust lands are scattered throughout the state, typically as two of the 36 sections in each township. (A section is a one-mile square, or 640 acres). They are shown in a map here: www.statetrustlands.org/images/pdfs/montana2.pdf.

According to a fiscal note prepared last year for the legislation creating the program, the state has more than 5.1 million acres of school trust lands. They're administered by the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation with the aim of generating income for state schools.

FWP says there are about 4,000 parcels totaling 1.2 million acres that are not accessible to the general public. That's a total area larger than that of Glacier National Park.

FWP assumed an average of 40 parcels - that's one percent of the total - would be involved in offers of access through the program, with three-quarters of those being accepted.

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