By all means, please educate me if I’m wrong. I’ve enjoyed access on several, and the access portion is typically a large reason the acquisitions enjoy strong public support. What am I missing?
Habitat Montana easements mandates access through rule. There is no statutory requirement for access. As such, FWP has broad parameters in which they can define access and how it fits with the easement management plan. I'm not surprised to hear of Eric's experience as many of the folks working on this have an obligation to get as much access as possible but that can oftentimes lead to bad conservation outcomes depending on the management plan of the rancher/farmer, or what the land can bear regarding hunter pressure. Other easements, such as the Sage Grouse conservation easements, do not require access as any component of the easement. FWP also has access easements under the Upland Game Bird Habitat Enhancement Program, Migratory Bird program, and the WHIP program.
WHIP was signed into law by Steve Bullock in 2017 & the PAL Act was negotiated by Bullock's FWP (Dustin Temple, actually) and signed into law by Bullock in 2019. That program recently hit 500,000 acres of previously landlocked public land being opened for walk-in access. Schweitzer's FWP did a fantastic job working on getting wolves delisted, decreasing hunter pressure during archery seasons, enacting large land purchases like Spotted Dog, the Marias River WMA, securing over $10 million for fishing access sites and a similar amount for the MT Legacy project that has added almost a million acres of former timber lands to the public estate. Bullock's heavy use of Habitat MT helped achieve significant conservation goals in terms of securing permanently protected habitat for wildlife management and family agriculture through conservation easements, enacting the first wolf hunt, lossening of wolf regulations, WHIP & PALA. While Gov. Gianforte hasn't used the Habitat MT program as heavily as those previous governors, he has been a champ for some pretty important projects as well (Big Snowies, Garrity MTn, etc).
In terms of which administration was best, you have to look at the legislature as well as the administrations. Since 2011, the legislature has been controlled by the republican party, and as such, they've used the legislature as a method to try and thwart the efforts of the democratic administrations. That's not a judgement call, just an observed fact.
Per Austin (whom I do like personally and have always thought he was smarter than people give him credit for), he was a supporter of the transfer and sale of public lands, supported defunding Habitat Montana, supported efforts to undermine conservation programs and as speaker, helped set a combative tone around the issues we care about.
Having said all that, he will easily get re-elected so folks can either try and find a way to work with him, or prepare for combat. The Attorney General has never hidden his beliefs relative to conservation & public lands. He's run on those and won easily in 2020.