HELENA — A legislative panel Thursday voted to advance a report on how to encourage more state involvement in management of federal lands in Montana — but not before changing it to say transferring those lands to the state should be considered a “last resort.”
The Environmental Quality Council, made up of legislators and citizen members, also amended the report to say the governor should convene a “federal lands committee” to coordinate land management with federal officials.
However, the panel voted against recommending a bill to create a similar, permanent subcommittee within the council.
The votes came one day after the 16-member council sparred over the report, as Democrats said its original version had a “hidden agenda” of promoting transfer of federal lands to the state.
In recent months, some conservatives in the West have been pushing the transfer, saying state management will enable quicker decisions on logging, mining and other activity on federal public lands, to help local economies.
Opponents say the transfer is a radical, political longshot of an idea that would saddle the states with unaffordable management costs and perhaps lead to selling some of the lands to private interests.
Council members on Wednesday decided to re-edit the report and bring it up again Thursday.
The report, as approved Thursday, makes 11 recommendations on managing federal lands in Montana, including creation of the federal lands committee, creating new positions in the state Justice Department to promote Montana priorities for the land, and requiring state officials to support “increased economic productivity” and other goals on federal lands in Montana.
The report now goes out for public comment. The EQC will take a final vote in September on the report, whose recommendations would be forwarded to the 2015 Legislature.
While the panel agreed to advance the report Thursday, the issue of transferring federal land to state ownership or management prompted another partisan exchange.
Sen. Jim Keane, D-Butte, said one of its recommendations should say the Legislature should not pursue the transfer of federal lands to the state.
“We need to address this and we need to send this out for public comment,” he said.
Sen. Jennifer Fielder, R-Thompson Falls, who’s spoken in favor of the transfer idea, objected, saying Keane’s recommendation would inject a partisan position into the report.
“Out of respect for the bipartisan nature of this committee, I would ask that we stay neutral on that,” she said. “I think there are a lot of questions that need to be answered before we make a conclusion either for or against.”
Scott Aspenlieder, of Billings, a citizen member of the council, said coming down against the transfer would be “taking an option off the table that has not been fully vetted.”
“We don’t know the path that we need to go,” he said. “I’d hate to eliminate any option.”
Keane said he wanted to make the statement to prompt public comment on both sides of the issue.
Yet as the panel prepared to vote on Keane’s motion, Rep. Bill McChesney, D-Miles City, made a substitute motion that said the Legislature should not pursue the transfer of federal lands until “all other options are investigated.”
“I do see that as the option of last resort,” he said.
The motion passed on a 10-6 vote, with five of the panel’s six Republican legislators voting against it.