When American Prairie acquired the 73 Ranch last month, it got a wildlife-rich ranch located along the Musselshell River in Garfield and Petroleum Counties. But the public will get more than 9,300 acres of public land that it has never had access to in the deal.
In the same month that two of the largest ranch sales in Montana ever were announced and those properties were transferred to wealthy landowners, including Rupert Murdoch, American Prairie acquired the historic ranch, which includes 12,233 deeded acres and 19,970 leased acres along the southern border of the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge.
This acquisition brings the total for American Prairie to more than 450,000 acres statewide.
Pete Geddes, American Prairie vice president, said it’s the largest opening of public lands for decades.
What makes it unique is that public lands in the western United States are often landlocked or surrounded by private land, making them technically owned by the public, but totally inaccessible. This transaction will open more than 9,300 acres that were previously inaccessible. Different public lands access groups estimate that there are still more than 1.2 million acres across the West that are publicly owned but impossible to access.
“When we first started, people around us were skeptical,” Geddes said. “But now, we have a track record of opening land that was once off limits.”
After learning the intricacies of the ranch, Geddes believes the leadership of American Prairie will begin opening public access, some of it will be walk-in, while other areas may allow for motorized access. The 73 is touted for its population of elk, mule deer, pronghorn, turkeys, pheasants and other waterfowl.
“We did not want to lose a rare opportunity to both conserve critical wildlife habitat and be able to share this special place for the public,” said Damien Austin, superintendent for American Prairie. “We negotiated fair market value for the property and will pay property taxes that support our local communities just as we do with all our properties.”
American Prairie’s interest in the property was a matter of good timing, too, Geddes said. Originally, the Bureau of Land Management had wanted to add it, but the deal fell through because federal law doesn’t allow the agency to take into consideration the value of the property beyond the land value, discounting its value for tourism or conservation. That allowed American Prairie to work its fundraising to get the deal done.
“It’s much more valuable than the underlying value of running cows,” Geddes said. “If you look at the sale prices of ranches in the West, it’s clearly valuing property for more than animal units.”
He said the land won’t just be great for Montana public access, but should help continue to develop ecotourism and drawing people to visit and recreate on open lands. He acknowledged the disconnect between the politics of Montana and the economic engine of tourism.
“Most of those people who come here to visit our public spaces aren’t voting in Montana, so the politicians don’t feel the sting or the reward from policies that support our recreation,” Geddes said.
Both Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte and the state’s Attorney General, Austin Knudsen, have been vocal opponents of American Prairie, recently protesting the BLM’s decision to continue leases that were not connected to cattle grazing.
“The agriculture interest in what we’re doing is obvious and it’s influential,” Geddes said. “But there are diffuse outdoor recreational groups.”
He said that hunters groups may differ a lot from other hiking or recreational groups, which makes it hard for every group to speak with a unified voice.
However, several groups came out to support The 73’s acquisition, including the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, the Backcountry Hunters and Anglers and the Montana Wildlife Federation.