Those claiming to be property rights advocates are once again saying charitable organizations should not be allowed to own land. The recent purchase of the historic 73 ranch in Central Montana by American Prairie has sparked a new surge of misinformation claiming non-profit organizations aren’t carrying their share of the tax burden.
As the former Director of the Montana Department of Revenue and thirty-year veteran of that state agency, I’m troubled about this misinformation. It’s imperative that Montanans understand that not only does American Prairie pay its fair share, but economically speaking, they are going above and beyond by contributing to our state’s high-value outdoor industry.
American Prairie currently manages over 450,000 acres of leased and deeded lands in Central Montana located near the Charles M Russell National Wildlife Refuge in Missouri Breaks Country. While this may seem like a lot, American Prairie’s share of the taxable agricultural property is less than 1% of the total taxable agricultural property in Montana.
In tax year 2020, American Prairie paid roughly $134,000 in property taxes and fees in six counties. This includes property taxes assessed on their agricultural property and the buildings they own, including the Enrico Education and Science Center and the newly opened National Discovery Center in downtown Lewistown. As we all know, property taxes are critical to financing local government services including funding for public schools, law enforcement and fire protection. American Prairie understands this and believes strongly in paying their fair share of property taxes to fund these essential services.
Also, the misinformation suggests that American Prairie is treated differently than other property owners. American Prairie does not have any property tax advantage over other landowners. Their property taxes are determined in the same manner as every other Montana property owner.
However, there is one key management difference: a commitment to public access. When American Prairie purchases an agricultural property, they continue to lease grass to local ranchers, keeping those lands in production. American Prairie purchases private land, pays the taxes, and then opens the property up for outdoor uses including hunting, camping, fishing, biking and wildlife watching. In fact, American Prairie is now ranked among the top ten landowners in the state actively enrolling property into Montana’s block management hunting access program.
When announcing the purchase of the 73 ranch in Central Montana, American Prairie vowed to open portions of the property up for public use and unlock access to 9,300 acres of previously inaccessible public lands.
It’s undeniable that public access to land and water fuels our state’s $2.3 billion-dollar outdoor industry. By boosting recreation in Central Montana, American Prairie is creating new economic opportunities, enabling rural communities to cash in from new visitors to the region, and growing local economies all the while maintaining grassland leasing opportunities for local ranchers.
Naysayers will continue to argue American Prairie and other non-profits enjoy an unfair advantage when purchasing property because their donors receive write-offs for charitable contributions through the federal tax code. That same federal tax code provides Montanans
numerous tax advantages including agricultural producers who enjoy many special tax breaks and subsidized benefits.
The bottom-line is American Prairie is taxed fairly, pays their taxes directly, and then indirectly helps the local economy by leasing grass to ranchers and providing more public access for all Montanans.
Gene Walborn served for thirty years at the Montana Department of Revenue. He retired in 2020 after serving as Director.