Public Lands Rally

Demonstrators traveled to Montana Capitol from across the state to denounce land transfer efforts last month.

HELENA — A resolution introduced in the state House against selling federal lands or transferring them to Montana met the same fate as a similar measure introduced in the Senate this week, with majority Republicans voting to table the measure.

On Friday, Rep. Virginia Court, D-Billings, brought House Joint Resolution 11 before the House Natural Resources Committee. The resolution, which states a policy position and is not legally binding, recognizes the value of public lands to Montana’s economy, recreation, heritage and quality of life, and opposed efforts to claim, take over or sell off those lands.

Court told the committee that she was impressed at the Jan. 30 rally at the Capitol in which 1,000 or more public land advocates rallied in opposition of federal land transfers and sales.

“I was amazed not only by the oldsters but the young people and young families,” she said. “The message was loud and clear: don’t mess with our public lands.”

Transferring federal lands to states has become a contentious political topic across the West.

Transfer supporters argue states would better manage the lands and benefit financially through natural resource production.

Opponents see state ownership as a path to privatization due to management costs including firefighting. Many opposed also emphasize the national ownership of federal lands as belonging to all Americans.

HJ11 is similar to SJ17 brought on Wednesday by Sen. Diane Sands, D-Missoula. The Senate Natural Resources Committee heard, and then the Republican majority on the committee voted to table, the measure. A blast motion to bring the resolution to the floor failed.

On Friday, proponents brought economic, social and cultural arguments for HJ11’s passage in testimony wavering between practical and personal.

Ben Goertzen described himself as a professional skier and wildlife filmmaker and stressed the importance of public lands to his and others' businesses.

Dan Roper with Montana Audubon hammered the potential economic consequences of Montana taking ownership of potentially tens of millions of acres, and an estimated $500 million management cost.

“(There may be) more logging and or mineral rights, but can the state actually come up with $500 million year after year?” he asked.

Several speakers referenced recent developments in Utah, where officials in that state have pushed legally and legislatively to transfer federal lands. The decision of a $45 million outdoor retailer show to pull out of Utah is an indication of the economic consequences of those policies, they said.

Heidi Buzzetti, vice president of the Montana State University Wilderness Association, said that she would not remind the committee of the intrinsic and practical values of public lands because “it hasn’t worked.”

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Buzzetti continued, saying that young people recognize the value of public lands, and “we will vote to ensure we always have access to them.”

Montana does not want to see lost economic opportunities, Court said in closing on the resolution. She offered personal accounts of herself and her family enjoying public lands and pointed to land transfer opposition from Montana’s congressional delegation, saying the Legislature should make it clear they stand with them.

No one testified against the resolution and the committee asked no questions.

During executive action, some Republicans on the committee indicated they would be inclined to support the measure if language was struck essentially making the resolution only opposed to selling federal lands. Some of those on the fence indicated concern that smaller land transfers that often consolidate ownership would not be protected by the resolution.

Amendments to strike “convey” and “take over” and to alter language in the resolution to oppose “transfer” and “sell off” of federal lands failed.

The original resolution failed on a vote of 7-8, with Republican Rep. Kelly Flynn of Townsend and all of the Democrats on the committee voting in favor. The committee then voted along party lines to table the measure.

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Reporter Tom Kuglin can be reached at 447-4076 @IR_TomKuglin