(HELENA) Gov. Steve Bullock hosted state leaders and outdoor groups in Helena today to officially kick off a new program to expand access to public lands in Montana.

The Montana Public Land Access Network, or MT-PLAN, will collect private donations from individuals and groups. That money will then be offered as grants to landowners who open access through their property to public lands that aren’t otherwise accessible, or who improve existing public access.

The Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation will administer MT-PLAN and make recommendations on grant applications. The projects must then be approved by the state Land Board.

Bullock pointed to a study by the Center for Western Priorities, which found Montana has nearly 2 million acres of public lands that are currently inaccessible for recreation.

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“This network will allow Montanans, each and every one of us, to help further chip away at those two million acres and unlock more areas of public lands for all of us to enjoy,” he said.

During this year’s state legislative session, lawmakers passed House Bill 597, which set up MT-PLAN. The bill, sponsored by Republican Rep. Alan Doane of Bloomfield, received wide support from both parties.

Doane praised the program for encouraging cooperation between property owners and outdoor recreation advocates.

“There’s been a lot of division over the years, and it’s great to see such a diverse group come together,” he said.

The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation made the first donation to MT-PLAN during Monday’s event. Mark Lambrecht, the group’s director of government affairs, presented a check for $25,000.

“We look forward to working with the state of Montana to make this program a big success,” Lambrecht said.

Dave Chadwick, executive director of the Montana Wildlife Federation, said his group also plans to make a donation.

Individuals who want to contribute to MT-PLAN can make donations through DNRC. You can find more information at the department’s website.

DNRC public access specialist Ryan Weiss said the department will start asking for grant applications in early 2018. He said the first grants could be awarded later in the year.

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