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Beartooth Highway

A view of the Beartooth Mountains and the Custer National Forest from the Stillwater Plateau near Dean.

Last Wednesday, Rep. Ryan Zinke’s office announced that he “bucks party leaders and votes NO on transferring ownership of public lands.”

The news release trumpeted Zinke’s opposition to H.R. 3650, a bill introduced by Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, and supported by all but one other Republican on the House Natural Resource Committee. The bill was approved by the committee even with Zinke’s no vote.

Zinke didn’t brag about another vote he cast in that same committee meeting when he joined all other Republicans in approving H.R. 2316, a bill introduced by Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, that aims to transfer management of millions of acres of national forest lands to states.

“Both are really bad,” said Land Tawney, national president and CEO of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, a group based in Missoula. “The Young bill is flat out transfer. Labrador cuts out multiple use right away.”

Zinke’s press release noted that H.R. 3650, the State National Forest Management Act of 2015, “would permit up to 2 million acres of public lands owned by the U.S. Forest Service to be transferred to state ownership. To add insult to injury, the bill also does not include a provision requiring that purchased or exchanged lands remain in public ownership.”

“We use our land for hunting, fishing, hiking, and to create jobs,” Zinke said in his news release. “Our outdoor economy is a billion-dollar economic engine for the state that creates jobs. The federal government needs to do a much better job of managing our resources, but the sale or transfer of our land is an extreme proposal and I won’t tolerate it.”

So why would Zinke tolerate the scheme in Labrador’s Self-Sufficient Communities Lands Act?

In this version of the continuing effort to turn federal land over to states, governors in states with national forests would have authority to appoint committees to manage a minimum of 200,000 acres in each national forest. These lands would no longer be subject to federal wildlife, clean water and clean air laws as they apply to the federal government. The governor-appointed committees would be required to generate money from the forest land to pay for committee administration and management, and then would distribute 75 percent of the profits to local governments where the forest land is located. The other 25 percent would go to the federal government.

For Tawney, the most encouraging aspect of having these two national forest land/management transfer bills come out of committee last week is the limited House schedule for the rest of this year.

There are so few work days left on the House calendar that the chances of either land bill passing are slim. However, there’s the possibility that a land/management transfer bill could be attached to must-pass legislation such as an appropriations act.

Zinke has called himself a Theodore Roosevelt Republican. To legitimately make that claim, he must be consistent in his support for public access and unwavering in opposition to legislation that diminishes the public’s opportunity to use its lands.

National forests are supposed to provide multiple use. Hunting, hiking, camping and fishing are managed along with grazing, logging, drilling and mining.

Our national forests belong to all Americans. They produce value for visitors from afar and for those of us who live nearby. Recent University of Montana poll numbers that show Montana Republicans, Democrats and independents all strongly support public access to public lands.

We call on Montana’s lone congressman to show us that he will be vigilant in protecting our land heritage by voting against both of these bills alone or as riders.