Montana Governor Greg Gianforte has requested meetings with the Biden administration on potential land swaps that could put more than 29,000 acres of state trust land on the Flathead Reservation into tribal ownership while the State could receive compensatory federal land.
The Montana Water Rights Protection Act, ratifying the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes water pact, was signed in 2020 by former President Donald Trump as part of federal omnibus legislation. He received support from all three members of Montana’s congressional delegation at the time: Democratic Senator Jon Tester and Republican Senators Steve Daines and Gianforte when he was in the House of Representatives.
The law allows the state of Montana to transfer certain state-owned lands located on the reservation to the tribe. In exchange, the state would receive other federal lands as new state trust lands.
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In a March 28 letter to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of the Interior, Gianforte requested meetings to begin discussions about possible land swaps. The letter notes that secretaries should prioritize exchanges in the five-year period following the law’s enactment last September.
“There are a number of critical elements that will require further discussion between the departments, the state and CSKT, including the identification and availability of state trust lands that may ultimately be included in the proposed land swap,” the letter read.
The law identifies nearly 37,000 acres of state trust land. However, an analysis by the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation determined that only about 29,000 acres might be eligible for transfer. The letter notes that eligible lands include those currently adjacent to tribal lands.
Non-trust lands such as state parks are not eligible.
CSKT Tribal Chairman Tom McDonald said in a statement that he appreciates Governor and DNRC Director Amanda Kaster for her commitment to implementing the water pact.
“The state land swap process is a win-win situation for the state, the tribes and the American taxpayer,” he said. “It provides significant economic benefits to the state and its ability to provide a well-funded education system through land consolidation, it allows for better resource management through the return of tribal lands, and it saves taxpayers billions by resolving complex liability.
The governor’s office and the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation said in sending the letter that many state trustlands on the Flathead Reservation are difficult to access and checkerboard to other properties. land. Currently, most trust lands are either grazing leases or managed for timber production.
If the Crown lands are transferred, the leases will terminate on March 1 of the year following the exchange. Any future leasing decisions would be submitted to CSKT or the Bureau of Indian Affairs and would be subject to Tribal or Federal laws and rules.
The state would seek to swap land with “greater public access and revenue generation opportunities,” the governor’s office said in a news release. State trust lands are managed primarily for the benefit of public education through leases and sales. Any swaps would require approval from the Montana State Board of Land Commissioners.
“While there is no specific land exchange proposal at this time, the state has begun to review the eligibility of state trust lands in the reservation to participate in the exchange” , said Shawn Thomas, administrator of the DNRC’s trust lands division. with tenants who may be affected by any future exchanges under the MWRPA (Montana Water Rights Protection Act).
Gianforte said in a statement that he expects the transfer process to take several years.
Primarily, the CSKT Water Compact has settled over 10,000 tribal water rights claims both on and off the reservation. The tribes relinquished their claims to most off-reserve water rights in exchange for 211 on-reserve water rights, 10 off-reserve water rights, and co-ownership of 58 other water rights. The act also created a $1.9 billion trust fund to settle damage claims and rehabilitate the century-old Flathead Indian Irrigation Project.
Additionally, the act provided for the transfer of the National Bison Range near Moiese to the tribe, which happened last year.
An Interior spokesperson said the agency had no comment on the letter.
The USDA did not respond to a request for comment.
Tom Kuglin is an associate editor in the state bureau of Lee Newspapers. Its coverage focuses on the outdoors, recreation and natural resources.