Concerned that the speakers for an upcoming discussion may be biased toward the transfer of federal lands to state control, an Environmental Quality Council work group agreed to a legislator’s request to consider other participants.
“I really do have some concerns about Montana” following that path, Rep. Ed Lieser, D-Whitefish, told the Environmental Quality Council's SJ 15 work group during a conference call Thursday.
Lieser said later in a telephone interview, “I really don’t think working toward the transfer of public lands to the state is a realistic goal. And it appears that’s the direction this committee is going.”
The two informational witnesses that prompted Lieser’s concern are Utah legislator Ken Ivory, who sponsored a bill in that state to compel the federal government to transfer its lands to state control a year from now, and Doyle Shamley, CEO of Veritas Research, who helped a Nevada county become a contractor to thin federal timber lands to lessen wildland fire damage. Their work has been lauded by representatives of extractive industries.
“I’ve read some of the things Shamley and Ivory have written, and I believe the Environmental Quality Council needs to hear another perspective,” Lieser said.
Lieser suggested that Tom France, of the National Wildlife Federation in Missoula, and John Tubbs, director of the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, be added to the list of speakers for the meeting scheduled Jan. 8-9 in Helena. The agenda for the meeting has not been finalized.
Sen. Jennifer Fielder, R-Thompson Falls, who chairs the SJ 15 work group, said she had no problem opening up the discussion to more perspectives, but she was concerned that too many speakers may substantially limit the time any one of them can speak.
The idea for greater state management of federal lands has caught on in other Western states, including Idaho and California, prompting comparisons to the so-called “Sagebrush Rebellion” of the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Back then, “ranchers, loggers, miners and others” were pitted “against Washington bureaucrats in a fight over the West's land, water and mineral resources,” as a 1980 U.S. News and World Report story put it. “Westerners hope that this support will translate into a number of concessions: Greater control over federal timber and grazing lands, more federally financed water projects and an easing of government red tape and bureaucratic nit-picking."
The rebellion was dubbed a “populist land reform promoted by rural conservatives.”
In a telephone interview following the conference call, Fielder said comparing today’s circumstances to the Sagebrush Rebellion marginalizes what is taking place in the West – namely large forest fires, logging projects slowed or halted by court challenges and federal land management plans that have reduced motorized access to some lands.
“It’s a big issue and potentially could be a real game changer for our state and nation,” she said.
Fielder said the federal government’s ability to manage its lands is in “sharp decline” because of deep budget and staff cuts. She said states need to step in to assure their residents that no matter what happens to the debt-ridden federal government, they will still have access to federal lands for recreation and jobs like logging and mineral extraction.
“I think there’s quite a bit of evidence that the states are doing a better job than the federal government in a lot of respects,” Fielder said.
“We really need to take a serious look at how we can protect revenues for our communities,” and added that legislation like Utah’s merits consideration.
Lieser said it would be better for the EQC to explore cooperative agreements. He pointed to legislation that has been introduced in Congress, such as the Good Neighbor Forestry Act, as examples of ways states and federal agencies could work together.
“There are many models out there that don’t take the authority away from the federal government to complete this mission,” Lieser said.
He also voiced concern that if the state did assume control of federal land and then couldn’t afford to manage the acreage, parcels would be sold to private landowners to boost state coffers.
“That’s not what the citizens of the United States want,” he said.
The Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service have had liaisons attending the EQC work group’s meetings, mainly to provide information when questions arise. Their official response to questions about Montana’s lawmakers following Utah’s lead are guarded and couched in cooperative tones, yet they are tracking the progress of the issue.
“It’s a great opportunity for education,” said Melodie Lloyd, the BLM’s state information officer. “When we first heard about this, it was a little concerning, but we have a great relationship with the DNRC and (the Montana Association of Counties)” as well as other state agencies.
Lloyd said she hopes state lawmakers will see that the BLM and its lands have a “benefit to all Montanans.”
In an email statement, Elizabeth Slown, director of public and governmental relations for the U.S. Forest Service’s Region One in Missoula, wrote, “We appreciate the interest of the environmental quality council in the array of management issues involving the nearly 17 million acres of National Forest System lands in Montana. We have a long history of working with our state partners on forest-related issues dating back to the fires of 1910 and want to see that relationship continue to flourish. National forests are a critical part of what makes Montana such an amazing place to live or visit.”
Not to be dismissed
Although Utah’s attempt to gain control over its federal lands – excluding national parks and wilderness areas – has been dismissed by some federal officials as a stunt, Chapman University law professor Donald J. Kochan analyzed Utah’s Transfer of Public Lands Act and concluded in a paper that there are “serious legal questions to consider.”
Kochan wrote that Utah’s act “merely articulates the federal government’s duty to dispose and demands that it comply.”
Ivory’s argument is that when Western states were admitted to the Union, each state’s Enabling Act promised that eventually the federal government would “extinguish its title” to public lands. Ivory has argued that it is the federal government’s duty to transfer its title to public lands back to the state. In Utah, the federal government manages more than 20 million acres, an estimated 65 percent of the state.
Fielder predicted that the Forest Service, as it exists today, will be gone within a decade and that Payment in Lieu of Taxes — funds paid to states by the federal government for land it owns in the states — will eventually dry up because Eastern lawmakers see it as “pork” for Western states.
“The question I hear a lot is: ‘Who is impacted the most?’” by federal government actions, Fielder said. “Obviously, us, but we have a lot less say in how it’s managed” because small states like Montana have fewer congressional representatives than more populous states.
“So it’s a big deal for our state to get this straightened out.”