By Skip Kowalski, Tony Jones, J.W. Westman and Casey Hackathorn
Over the last few months, some Montana legislators have been ginning up attention to the idea that national forests and other public lands should be taken away from the federal government and transferred to state or local governments. The proponents of these schemes offer up legal-sounding rhetoric about “divestiture” and “enabling clauses,” and they wax about the riches that would be revealed if Montana’s public lands were turned over to state management.
These federal land takeover proposals gloss over the practical realities, like whether state or local agencies have the capacity to manage millions of acres of public land or the tax increases that would be necessary to finance all the activities they envision. Not to mention, they conveniently omit any discussion of the simple legal reality that taking federal lands is unconstitutional and guaranteed to fail in court.
Where are our legislators getting these federal land takeover ideas? They seem to be hatched up primarily in think-tanks run by politicians and ideological activists in other states. Legislators in Utah, lawyers in Nevada, and “expert consultants” from Arizona all seem to have an opinion about what’s best for Montana.
One thing we know: these federal land takeover proposals aren’t supported by grassroots Montanans. Those of us who are lucky enough to live in the Treasure State love our public lands. A poll last January found that Montanans hunt, fish, and enjoy recreation on public lands at a higher rate than residents of any other Western state. Two-thirds of us reported visiting public lands six or more times a year, with 38 percent reporting more than twenty visits a year. That strong personal connection to the land is why the same polls also show that overwhelming majorities of Montanans oppose federal land sale schemes.
And despite claims that these proposals wouldn’t lead to a selloff, Montanans aren’t being fooled. A severe fire season – which is sure to come every few years in the northern Rockies – would be devastating to Montana’s state budget. The only solution at that point would be severe tax increases on Montanans to pay for those costs, or a large-scale sell off of these national treasures. These are the places where Montanans go to recreate, including hunting, fishing and hiking, and that’s vital not only to our incredible quality of life but also our economy.
As Montanans, we wonder if our elected officials are more interested in listening to ideologically-driven “experts” from other states than their own constituents. All the rhetoric makes for good political speeches, but it doesn’t do much to help those of us who actually live near and use Montana’s public lands.
To be sure, we need to better fund and improve the management of federal lands in Montana. Some of our national forests are in need of thinning to remove beetle-killed trees near communities and public infrastructure to reduce the risk of wildfire. And there’s a lot of smart restoration work that could improve wildlife habitat. Roads and culverts all over the landscape are in need of upgrading, maintenance or decommissioning. Many of the grasslands and shrublands overseen by the Bureau of Land Management are in need of better management to enhance native vegetation, control weeds, and protect water sources and riparian habitat.
That’s why members of our organizations support smart legislative proposals to improve forest management, like Senator Tester’s Forest Jobs and Recreation Act. We also support balanced collaborative stakeholder initiatives and actively participate in land and resource planning by the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and other federal agencies.
By making our voices heard, we can help ensure that federal lands are managed to ensure the wildlife habitat and outdoor opportunities we depend on, while also providing reasonable grazing, logging, and other activities that support local economies. It’s not always easy, but in the long run, it makes for balanced use of our public lands for the benefit of all Montanans.
We need our elected officials to stand up for us and help us work together to improve the management of Montana’s public lands. We hope that our legislators will put aside the rhetorical games and focus on real improvements in land management.
Skip Kowalski is president of the Montana Wildlife Federation, Tony Jones is president of the Ravalli County Fish and Wildlife Association, J.W. Westman is with the Laurel Rod and Gun Club and Casey Hackathorn is president of Hellgate Hunters and Anglers.