Oral Testimony Before the Montana House Agriculture Committee in Opposition to H.B. 677

Aerial view of American Prairie Reserve. Image courtesy of American Prairie Reserve.

On March 30, PERC policy director Hannah Downey presented oral testimony before the Montana House Agriculture Committee in opposition to H.B. 677 that would ban select nonprofit organizations from purchasing more than 80 acres of agricultural lands.

Transcript of testimony:

Chair Kassmier, Members of the Committee – 

My name is Hannah Downey. I’m the policy director at PERC, a conservation research institute dedicated to improving environmental quality through property rights and markets based in Bozeman. Thank you for the opportunity to share testimony in opposition to House Bill 677. 

This bill would bar nonprofit organizations from purchasing land from willing sellers at a fair price. If enacted, this law would be a brazen violation of the Montana Constitution, which recognizes “acquiring, possessing, and protecting property” among the “inalienable rights” off-limits to government interference. 

In a March 22 op-ed in the Northern Ag Network, bill-sponsor Representative Bartel made it clear that his goal with this legislation is to stop the American Prairie Reserve. 

As a bit of background, APR is pursuing an ambitious project to establish the largest nature reserve in the contiguous United States. Unlike many environmental organizations that seek to use government power to coerce others, APR purchases property through voluntary exchange. So far, the organization has bought just over 100,000 acres of private land and leases more than 300,000 acres of public land. Whereas other groups lobby, regulate, and litigate to expand the federal estate, APR is respecting property rights and using voluntary market exchanges to conduct private conservation efforts. 

I also want to acknowledge that Montana’s ranchers and agricultural producers are incredible conservationists, and I appreciate concerns over what APR means for local communities and the tax base. But this legislation will not solve those problems. Instead, this bill destroys the property rights of landowners to sell their property to whoever they want and of APR to fairly negotiate land purchases with those willing sellers. 

Regarding concerns that APR is a nonprofit organization, I would like to remind the committee that nonprofits are constitutionally protected. Additionally, this bill exempts many nonprofit groups from the proposed purchasing restrictions, demonstrating that this legislation is more about government picking winners and losers than concern over nonprofits’ tax exemptions. 

You may disagree with the goals of APR, and I respect our difference of opinion. But there is no reason for believers in individual liberty, property rights, and free markets to abandon the defense of those values when a conservation group’s rights are at stake. Thank you for the opportunity to testify, and I urge a no vote on House Bill 677.

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