The public lands of the United States belong to every citizen, a fact that has never deterred efforts to convert the public domain to private profit.
The latest iteration of this recurring desire to privatize public land has sprouted under the guise of states’ rights. The Montana Republic Party has joined the campaign to “transfer” federal land to the state.
Over the past year, Montana’s Environmental Quality Council studied federal land issues at the direction of the Montana Legislature. Earlier this week, The Billings Gazette, Helena Independent Record and The Missoulian published a three-day series on public land, which is certain to be a hot topic when the Legislature convenes in January.
But Montana does not own, nor have a legal claim to the federal lands within the state borders any more than Yellowstone County could claim a right to take over the Montana state land within the county borders.
The ownership of federal land in Montana is spelled out in the Enabling Act that created our state, which says Montana “forever disclaims all right and title to the unappropriated public lands within the boundaries thereof. …”
In 1976, Congress passed the Federal Land Policy Management Act, which said public lands should remain in federal ownership unless the disposal is in the national interest.
The national interest of our great, diverse population is much broader than interests of the latest privatization proponents. And make no mistake, their aim is not for states to control the land, but for states to sell or lease public lands to the highest bidders.
Martin Nie, professor of natural resource policy at the University of Montana, testified a year ago to the Montana Environmental Quality Council about the constitutional basis for federal land ownership. The U.S. Constitution “gives Congress proprietary and sovereign powers over its property and the power to delegate decisions regarding federal lands to executive agencies,” Nie explained. U.S. Supreme Court decisions have upheld the federal government’s authority to manage wildlife on lands of the United States and to manage conduct outside of federal lands that could threaten the purpose of public lands.
Consider Yellowstone National Park, which is split between Montana and Wyoming and borders Idaho. The park is encircled by National Forests that grow across state lines, and Yellowstone is the source of rivers that water much of the West and Midwest as far away as the Gulf and Pacific coasts.
Nie also pointed out that federal lands are subject to treaty rights guaranteed to American Indian tribes.
“The bottom line is that federal lands in Montana and throughout the West are of national significance,” Nie told the EQC.
In Montana, the BLM spends much time permitting oil and gas exploration. The Forest Service is responsible for managing timber sales, and livestock grazing permits. These federal land agencies also have to maintain roads and campgrounds and manage wildlife habitat for hunting, fishing and conservation. Often there are conflicts between demands for multiple use, conflicts that must be resolved through public processes and equal application of the law.
The “transfer-federal-land” scheme wouldn’t resolve those conflicts. Instead, it would change the venue to state capitals.
Federal lands belong to the American people — to folks in Missouri and Iowa, New York and Texas just as they do to Montanans and Wyomingites. Congress cannot simply give away the birthright of its citizens.
Certainly, federal lands can be managed better. Elsewhere on this Opinion page, the executive director of the Western Governors Association argues for a rational, bipartisan bill that could help resolve one of many management issues. This is the type of reform that Congress should tackle.
Montanans and other Americans who want better management of public lands must work together for solutions that resolve specific problems and enhance the value of our public lands for the many constituencies that depend on them.