HELENA – The state land board has given its approval for the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation to purchase nearly 17,000 acres of farmland and pasture in eastern Montana.
The department will pay $11.3 million for the western section of the Angela Farm, a dryland grain farm in northern Rosebud County, northwest of Miles City. It will be one of the largest purchases made under the Montana’s land banking program, which encourages the state to sell off small, disconnected parcels of land and use the proceeds to buy other property that can produce more revenue.
DNRC leaders plan to lease most of the Angela Farm land to local farmers, who will be able to grow crops like wheat and barley there. Several thousand acres will be opened up for grazing leases.
DNRC projects the agricultural and grazing leases could raise more than $300,000 a year. That money would be directed toward a series of trusts, mostly benefiting public K-12 schools but also supporting Montana Tech, Montana State University-Billings and the University of Montana Western.
Shawn Thomas, DNRC’s trust land management division administrator, said he expects the Angela Farm to generate revenue at a rate three times that of the properties the agency has sold off.
“The return back to schools is huge for this property,” he said.
Thomas said the Angela Farm property will also be open to public access for hunting, and possibly for other recreational uses, once crops have been harvested.
The land board consists of Montana’s five top statewide elected officials. Gov. Steve Bullock, Attorney General Tim Fox, State Auditor Matt Rosendale and Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen supported the Angela Farm purchase agreement.
“I think it’s a significant opportunity, but also a significant lost opportunity if we don’t move this forward,” said Bullock.
Secretary of State Corey Stapleton voted against the sale.
DNRC leaders said the purchase agreement had received support from Rosebud County commissioners, local landowners and recreation advocates. But Thomas said it also drew criticism from some neighbors. He said many raised concerns about how large the proposed purchase was, how high the price was and how optimistic the state’s productivity estimates were.
Thomas said DNRC had originally considered purchasing the whole Angela Farm, but decided to focus only on the land west of Montana Highway 59. He also said the agency plans to sell other parcels in Rosebud County, to offset the state’s increasing land holdings in the area.
The Montana Legislature approved the creation of the land banking program in 2003. The state has already sold almost 80,000 acres of trust land – most of which was not legally accessible – and purchased 71,000 acres. DNRC leaders say the new trust lands generate much more state revenue and offer expanded recreational opportunities.
“We get a lot of positive feedback about the land banking program in general, so I think it’s a great opportunity to increase the revenues to schools and block up ownership and provide better access for the public,” said Thomas.