Opinion: American Prairie Does More Than Pay Taxes
By angelamontana

Posted: January 13, 2022

After a recent opinion-based article was posted (OPINION: APR’S RANCH BUYING SPREE HAS NEGATIVE IMPACT ON MONTANA TAXPAYERS), we were asked to post another opinion-based article in response to the previous one.  Here is a piece from former Montana Department of Revenue Director, Gene Walborn:

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.

Photo credit via Billings Gazette