An operator with R-Y Timber loads a log truck

An operator with R-Y Timber loads a log truck with freshly harvested beetle kill near Chessman Reservoir in 2014. The logging work is a project conducted by the city of Helena, Montana DNRC and the Forest Service to mitigate possible fire damage around Helena’s primary water source.

Democratic congressional candidate Denise Juneau has been called out for a false attack on her opponent U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke.

At issue is Juneau’s criticism of Zinke’s public lands record. In a June 15, website posting, Juneau said “Congressman Zinke votes to sell off America’s public lands.” She followed up with a letter to editors of several Montana newspapers in which she said “Zinke voted to allow the transfer of Montana’s public land.”

Zinke had done neither, according to a fact check by Ballotpedia, as well as a reading of the bill cited by Juneau.

At issue is the Self-Sufficient Community Lands Act, a bill by Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, “to generate dependable economic activity for counties and local governments containing National Forest System land by establishing a demonstration program for local, sustainable forest management, and for other purposes.”

The bill would allow governors to appoint advisory committees, which would identify national forest land for local management with production in mind.

The committee would consist of local elected office holders from any county within the demonstration area, a timber industry person, a federal grazing permit holder and a representative of recreational users. When demonstration area is over, management of the land returns to the federal government.

What the bill doesn’t do is sell federal land or transfer ownership. Nor does the bill concern Montana land, or land owned by any state. The bill also preserves public access and recreation on the land.

Requests to interview Juneau made by The Gazette over two days were unsuccessful. She issued a statement, along with highlighted excerpts from attacks in which she objected to management of federal lands by “politically appointed boards.” She didn’t address her statements about sales or transfers of federal and Montana lands.

“H.R. 2316 would transfer management of our public lands to politically-appointed boards in each state,” Juneau said. “That’s why I stand with Montana sportsmen and conservation groups in opposition to this bill, and any other wholesale efforts to transfer, sell, or restrict access to our public lands.”

Friday, Juneau was emailing a push poll on “keeping public lands in public hands,” that suggested Zinke “voted for a bill that would put millions of acres of Montana lands under the control of politically appointed boards.”

Public lands are the political playing card that Democrats are putting on the table often this election. The majority of Montanans identify strongly with the outdoor life. Two different polls this spring, one by the left-leaning Center for Western Priorities and one by the University of Montana, indicated that a majority of Montanans opposed state control of federal land.

“The way the bill is written, it doesn’t call for an outright transfer of the land, but it does call for a transfer of management with an emphasis on production,” said Neal Ullman, Montana Conservation Voter’s program director.

Ullman sees distinct differences in the way federal and state lands are managed. State trust lands, for example, are managed to make money. That kind of management is a concern to Ullman, who supports Juneau.

There’s also the issue of who repairs the damage if the advisory board mismanages the land and hands it back to the federal government. State environmental laws aren’t always as hardy as federal law. Taxpayers could end up paying for poor advisory board decisions.

There have been a House bills calling for advisory committees of the federal lands with the encouragement of logging, ranching or mining as an objective. Ullman said he suspects the trend is somehow related to Utah, home of House Natural Resource Committee Chairman Republican Rob Bishop.

Utah is the home ground of the American Lands Council, a group committed to transferring ownership of federal lands to the states. Ullman suspects a connection.

But there’s also a push for the local input on federal land management in Montana communities with struggling mining and logging economies.

Dana Wilson, vice chairman of the Crow Tribe, gives low marks to the federal government for its treatment of the coal mining projects on Crow land in southeast Montana.

The Crow Tribe is rich in coal but poor in sources of other revenue. It’s last big development project, the Big Metal Coal mine was to deliver more than $10 million in royalty payments to the Crow, in addition to mining jobs paying $60,000 a year or more. The tribe signed a mining contract with Cloud Peak in 2013, after years of federal process, Wilson said. The contract came during the height of the coal boom.

Now coal prices have crashed, driven downward by natural gas, a cheaper energy competitor. Wilson said the Crow missed the boom and are just now cutting core samples for approval during the bust.

“We got good coal here. Let’s develop a new mine. Let’s say, 'We got coal here, it’s been tested. It’s good quality. It’s compliant coal,' ” Wilson said. “Any power plant could burn it with no issues. We know we have the product. And yet we can’t say, ‘Let’s do this.’ We can’t because there are so many rules and red tape.”

A coal advisory committee of local elected officials, tribal members, and mine stakeholders sounds pretty good to Wilson.

Earlier this year, Zinke introduced a bill to end a federal ban on new coal leases and direct the Secretary of Interior to re-establish a royalty policy committee from which state, tribal and energy interests consult the department. The idea of the bill was to increase coal production on lands regulated by the federal government, including Indian land.

Emilie Ritter Saunders, a Juneau spokeswoman, said this week that the best manager of federal lands is the federal government.

But there are several instances in which the state of Montana has been allowed to call the shots on federal land.

Monday, Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, signed a “Good Neighbor Agreement” with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, allowing the state to manage some federal land. The agreement will result in 100 million board feet of federal forest timber for Montana sawmills, Bullock said at the signing ceremony. The logging would take place to reduce fire risk.

There have been similar agreements in recent years. In 2014, Bullock selected 5 million national forest acres as priority landscapes for forest management. The result was 50 million board feet for Montana sawmills.

The theme of Monday’s agreement of state involvement in federal lands management was “work in the woods.”

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Agriculture and Politics Reporter

Politics and agriculture reporter for The Billings Gazette.