Fish, Wildlife and Parks is developing rules to help landowners get a tax break if they provide access to public lands.
At Thursday's meeting in Helena, the FWP Commission approved draft rules outlining which landowners can qualify for a $500 state tax break if they allow access to otherwise inaccessible public land. The rules will now go out for public comment.
Alan Charles, FWP coordinator of landowner and sportsman relations, said FWP tried to build rules with a simple, clear process to avoid confusion.
Landowners must enter into a contract with FWP that lists the land they own, the access point and travel route, and the public land that the public gains access to.
A landowner could receive up to $2,000 worth of tax credits, depending on how many access points he can provide to different state lands.
The landowner can designate the mode of travel, such as motorized, horse or foot-travel only, but foot-travel only is limited to a distance of a half-mile.
If the state land being accessed is an allotment, a private landowner gets credit only if he also owns the allotment.
In addition to access, landowners must also allow public hunting on their land to qualify.
A law passed by the 2013 Legislature mandates many of these conditions and had bipartisan support because both sportsmen and landowners get something out of it. Other legislation that attempted to address public land access, such as the corner-crossing bill, wasn't successful.
The bill was about improving public access. So as part of the give-and-take of politics, a clause was added that disqualified any landowner that restricted public hunting on their own land in favor of commercial hunting or outfitters.
Commissioner Richard Stuker of Chinook said he would like to see that changed.
“I would hope the statute would be changed in the future if it meant opening up larger chunks of land,” Stuker said.
The rules don't apply only during hunting season. Access routes must be open for the majority of the year for a landowner to get credit.
However, FWP built in an option allowing landowners to close access in the case of environmental concerns, such as the threat of wildfire, or when moving livestock.
Reasonable restrictions are allowed as long as three criteria are met: FWP is given 24-hours notice, signs are posted on-site, and the restriction doesn't last any longer than seven days.
Land that is enrolled in any other FWP compensation program, such as block management, is not eligible for a tax break.
The public comment period will be open until Dec. 27. The law kicks in on Jan. 1 and sunsets in 2018.
Charles said the final rule would be published in February so that landowners would have time to apply by March 15. Contracts will be awarded by May 15.
During public comment, Mule Deer Federation spokesman Marshall Johnson said he recently drove around Montana with a map and found that around 65 percent of public land was inaccessible. So his group endorsed the plan as a way to increase access.
That was echoed by Joe Perry, who spoke for the Montana Sportsman's Alliance.
“We have been under pressure to reduce fee title purchases in favor of short-term easements, but no matter what criteria you set, short-term easements don't shake out,” Perry said. “This is a solution-based approach. If we can't have permanent easements, it's one of the few places we will bend.”