Guest opinion: Stop Congress from privatizing our public lands

2014-07-31T00:00:00Z Guest opinion: Stop Congress from privatizing our public landsBy JOHN LEWIS The Billings Gazette
July 31, 2014 12:00 am  • 

What if I told you there was a plan to take away your freedom to access Montana’s most cherished outdoor spaces and give you a big tax hike on top of it. Sounds like a pretty bad deal. Yet, that’s exactly what Congress and others are up to. Think I’m kidding?

Here are just a few of the proposals recently introduced in Congress:

 “The Land Division Act”

 “Disposal of Excess Federal Funds Act”

 “Conservation and Economic Growth Act”

I was blessed to grow up in Montana and I want the same – even better – for my kids and for all children. That’s why you’ll never catch me supporting any of these plans. Granting federally managed public lands to the states is, perhaps, the worst of the bad ideas to emerge in 2014. It is an assault on our Montana outdoor way of life and our pocketbooks. Here’s why:

Compared with other states, Montana would be disproportionately hurt by this policy. Nearly one-third of Montana is owned by the federal government and currently is open for hunting, fishing and recreation. Outdoor recreation contributes $646 billion to the national economy and brings $6 billion to Montana every year supporting businesses and jobs in nearly every community. Our public lands are critical to this economic activity and threatened by efforts to sell these lands to the highest bidder. In addition, a majority of the more than 26 million acres in federal lands are also managed to the benefit of private businesses. Livestock grazing, timber and mining leases are relatively inexpensive and help drive profits for the private sector supporting good-paying Montana jobs.

To pay for building roads, fighting wildfires and other responsibilities associated with managing an additional 26 million acres, the state would be forced to sell millions of acres to private interests. Montana taxpayers will be stuck footing the bill for the rest. In addition, the state would have to raise revenue elsewhere by increasing grazing leases for ranchers and driving up the cost of timber leases hurting our small mills.

Other states should serve as a cautionary tale. If you don’t believe loss of our public lands will cost you, ask the hunter in Texas who pays $5,000 just to bag a deer. Or the angler who pays $500 a day to catch a trout in Pennsylvania. In many states, you have to be wealthy to do what working families in Montana can enjoy freely thanks to our public lands.

This November, you have a say on the future of public lands. If given the opportunity to serve Montana in Congress, I’ll fight to keep public lands public. Period. I urge you to ask where my opponent stands.

Once and for all, it’s time to kill the idea that Montana’s public lands are fair game for sale to the highest bidder. If we don’t stand up for our public lands today, they could be gone forever.

John Lewis is the Democratic nominee for Montana’s U.S. House seat.

Copyright 2015 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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