Former Democrat Land Board staffers mislead public

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Guest Opinion

After reading a recent op-ed piece in the Billings Gazette and Montana Standard written by four seemingly confused former land board staffers regarding the Habitat Montana program I believe a response is definitely in order. The four, Ed Tinsley, Kathy Bramer, Rusty Harper and Jenny Eck show the ineptness associated with past operations of the land board when it comes to writing and approving legal documents. These documents are sometimes ambiguous, and potentially contrary to Montana laws that specifically provides for the rights or interests of the mineral estate in regards to the surface estate.

In their haste to make political hay during this political season they come up with what they consider to be “puzzling facts” to deceive the readers of their op-ed;

The first erroneous charge, “putting this language in easements denies the Legislature its constitutional role to write and change law.” Nobody can deny the legislature their constitutional role by inserting language in a document other than the Constitution. The language asked to be inserted into the proposed agreement is reference to existing state statutes. These statutes are law as passed by the legislature and does not and cannot infringe on the legislature’s ability to change those laws.

The next falsehood brought forth by these antagonists, “landowners have to forever give up any claim to being allowed a say in how development on private property can occur.” Once again the language we asked to be inserted not only allows participation by the surface owner it requires notification and participation of the surface owner and mineral developer and is referenced in the law. But on a side note, a conservation easement does dictate how a landowner will operate their agriculture operations with the landowner giving up many rights.

The final deceptive point made by the four political pundits, “it would establish a precedent throughout the West that landowners who own surface rights, but not mineral rights (a common situation in Western states called a “split estate”), could not place easements on their properties without approval of the mineral estate owner.” Nowhere in the proposed amendments would it have required permission of the mineral owner for the surface owner to take a conservation easement. As with the previous two points, this accusation is pure drivel written to start a fight where there is no reason other than to push a political agenda with deceit rather than fact.

These four go on to say that eliminating going before the Land Board for approval of an expenditure of millions of dollars would reduce red tape. It sounds as if they believe it is prudent to remove reviews by an elected body and should only be reviewed at the discretion of a politically appointed commission.

Our industry supports the Habitat Montana program. I have testified at the Montana Land Board and other venues in favor of various types of access easements. However, there is a process and there are parties affected other than the person seeking the easement. The current process requires notification of the neighboring land owners as well as the county commissioners. We asked that the owners of the mineral estate be notified. We asked that the surface owner be notified in the easement document that any mineral share they may have could be subject to development under existing law. We asked that it be made clear in the easement documents that the mineral owner may not be denied access to their property right. This is all a far cry from the antagonistic opinions written by four former political staffers.

Alan Olson is the Executive Director of the Montana Petroleum Association.