Loss of public access to private land frustrates hunters in Mineral, Sanders counties

As general hunting season opened on October 22, longtime hunters in Mineral and Sanders counties were shocked to find that some of their favorite grounds were closed to the public.

As hundreds of thousands of acres have changed hands in recent years, access issues have routinely arisen since the sale of the former Weyerhaeuser property — a total of 630,000 acres — in 2020. Weyerhaeuser’s former property, MKH Montana, removed the land from circulation in May Block administration and closed public access for hunting or recreation.

Block Management is a Montana partnership between Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and volunteer private landowners. The partnership helps landowners manage hunting activities to allow the public free hunting access to private land.

“Private property rights are really important,” said State Assemblyman Denley Loge, R-St. Reg. “But what bothers me is that if some of the backcountry becomes privately owned, it could mean a permanent lack of access depending on which owner buys it.”

Loge has become a channel for concerned residents to express their frustration at changing access to land and seek legal solutions.

Like many Montanans, Loge is an avid hunter. He understands the frustration that comes when popular hunting grounds are closed, but he also understands that MKH Montana is selling the land to make a profit. At the end of the day, you are the owner.

These frustrated residents also understand private property rights. But they hope for a mutually acceptable solution.

“This is just another example of how rural America is being gutted by the city,” said Zach Whipple-Kilmer, an avid hunter and owner of Limberlost Brewing Company in Thompson Falls. “I get it, but it’s just frustrating.”

While hunting is a popular activity among Montanans across the state, it also sustains many people during the winter months. According to Whipple-Kilmer, many families in the Plains community take advantage of close access to public lands to stock their freezers.

As a result, the lack of public access to hunting will make it harder for families to “make it,” he said.

Whipple-Kilmer and Cody Carr, a Montana outfitter and hunter, have held several public meetings to highlight the issue, most recently on November 15 at the Sanders County Fair Pavilion. That gathering included residents, lawmakers and a representative from MKH Montana, Whipple-Kilmer said.

MKH MONTANA is a unit owned by the Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT) and the Missouri State Highway Patrol Employees’ Retirement System (MPERS). When MoDOT buys large tracts of land, a new subsidiary is formed to manage them and limit liability issues. MKH Montana was formed to manage and sell land acquisitions in Montana.

MoDOT buys assets and those assets are then pooled and sold. These assets are often forest areas. The sales will go to MoDOT and the Patrol Retirement System’s pension fund, according to John Hickman, a real estate agent with Compass South Land Sales who is tasked with finding buyers for the Montana property.

Compass South Land Sales has partnered with MoDOT nationwide. They plan to sell the property acquired in Mineral County first, Hickman said.

Plains has nearly 10,000 acres of MKH Montana land for sale. Mineral County has around 7,000.

Hickman said there is no current intention to develop any high-density development on MKH Montana’s land. He also said the company is working with the Trust for Public Lands to secure access to part of the property.

THE NOV. The meeting went well, with about 100 in attendance — including Hickman representing MKH Montana — Whipple-Kilmer said after the meeting.

Hickman said the meeting gave him an opportunity to meet with concerned residents.

“The reason people attended the meeting was to find out what was going on,” Hickman said. “I want to make it clear that MKH is willing to work with any buyer.”

State Senator Bob Brown, R-Thompson Falls, also made an appearance. He told the Inter Lake he spoke with Matt Freeman, Gov. Greg Gianforte’s natural resources adviser, to discuss ways to gain maximum access in a reasonable timeframe.

Whipple-Kilmer believes the presence of an MKH representative was essential for people on both sides of the issue. The company could see and hear the people affected by the access change, he said, and residents could see that the company has a job to do — and that job is to make a profit.

Meanwhile, hopes are brewing to strike a deal to ensure the country remains public, Whipple-Kilmer said.

“We get it. Everyone has to make money,” Whipple-Kilmer said. “But how do we do that while maintaining public access?”

Whipple-Kilmer, who has been paying close attention to land deals in the area since Weyerhaeuser’s big sale in 2020, said he hopes to keep small towns from being chopped up while businesses make heaps of money.

“It’s frustrating to have a foreign company in your backyard,” he said.

Reporter Kate Heston can be reached at [email protected]