The Etchart Ranch has been a Montana institution going back nearly to statehood and was long one of the largest livestock concerns in the state.
The story behind this sale is pretty simple -- the federal government has continued to ratchet down the ability of private ranchers to use the historic public land leases associated with their property. The price of land purchased has always reflected the value of those leases, meaning that deeded land with attached lease land has inflated prices.
Those leases would seem to have been traditionally secure under the Taylor Grazing Act in the 1930’s -- a piece of legislation that is very clear that traditional grazing rights cannot be taken away, nor could non-grazing interests bid against grazers in an attempt to take land out of grazing circulation. Those grazing allotments were required to follow traditional leasing patterns, which generally meant leasing public land that was “attached to” deeded adjacent private land.
This latter was always a source of frustration to environmentalist groups, who wanted to go in and outbid grazers in order to get livestock off public lands. This would have amounted to a confiscation of private property, since the value of the grazing allotments was built into the value of the deeded land. Apparently one of the things that happened to change things on the CMR Wildlife Refuge is that the 9th Circuit Court (i.e. the "9th Circus" based out of San Francisco) removed the CMR from being under the strictures of the Taylor Grazing Act, and placed it under a later act dealing with wildlife refuges.
Public lands ranchers have increasingly been caught between a rock and a hard place, but a “life-line” was thrown to them by the Clinton administration to help ease the pain of the obvious end that was in sight. Permission was given for private conservation groups to pay full market-rate prices for allotments and leases, allowing ranchers to recoup the full value of their investment, and it is this loophole (or a similar one) that the current owners of this particular 150,000 acre spread have taken advantage of. The final piece is that these more recent regulations allow new owners to "retire" grazing allotments and leases.
In the past, this was not allowable, and perhaps in some situations still is not. Traditionally, if an environmentalist was to buy private land with an attached lease or grazing allotments, they couldn't just not use the lease, since their right to the lease or allotment depended on their putting the land to the intended "meaningful use." In other words, a landowner could put his deeded land to whatever use he wanted -- but with regard to attached leases and allotments, it was "use it or lose it." In the hypothetical case of the environmentalist who bought deeded land but didn't use his grazing rights on attached public lands, another neighbor would have the right to bid for that lease since he would be putting it to the intended "meaningful use."
No matter. The handwriting on the wall is clear. The Federal government means to drive ranching off public lands. Ranchers can either take advantage of these opportunities to have conservation groups pay true fair market value -- or they can hold out indefinitely until they lose everything. My own small ranch has no public land leases, but there is quite a bit of Forest Service land in my part of South Dakota on which grazing takes place. These are my neighbors and friends. The rage that must be going through the public-lands ranching community right now is something that I can’t imagine. I know I would find it hard to bear if it were my family heritage on the chopping block.
Be prepared for more of the same. The agenda is ultimately to move working people off their land to make room for buffalo. Out-of-staters can thus have another theme park to visit for one week a year.