Twenty-six days. That’s how long it took legislators to resuscitate legislation that supports transferring public land to the state, an idea Montanans have rejected time and time again. The newest effort, Rep. Steve Gunderson’s House Bill 320, is a misleading and cynical attempt to set the stage for yet another transfer push.
This wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing bill is a carbon copy of a bill introduced six years ago by then-senator Jennifer Fielder, an extreme transfer advocate, as part of a package of bills aimed at laying the groundwork for sale and transfer. Just like six years ago, legislators are trying to make it easier for the state to acquire federal public lands, even though it has no authority to do so. And just like six years ago, the bill does nothing to stop future legislatures from passing new laws allowing Montana to lease, sell or transfer these lands once they’re in state ownership.
The plan is obvious: transfer federal lands into state hands, pass new laws, and then auction these lands off to the highest bidder.
Ever since radical lawmakers first introduced transfer legislation back in 2015, Montanans have repeatedly and overwhelmingly rejected any and all transfer attempts, and rightly so: it presents countless enormous problems.
It would be disastrous for Montana taxpayers. The Billings Gazette, Helena Independent Record, and Missoulian have estimated that large-scale transfer would leave Montana with a $367 million annual deficit. This number will continue to grow. Wildfire suppression and prevention costs, for example, will skyrocket as fire seasons become longer and more intense. On Montana’s federal land, these costs have already climbed well over $100 million, but they’re shared by over 100 million taxpayers. If these lands were transferred to the state, the costs would fall entirely on the shoulders of Montanans.
If lands were transferred, we could kiss our favorite hiking trails, hunting grounds and fishing holes goodbye. We could be faced with heavy user fees to access the places we love. And both of these developments would put the clamps on our $7.1 billion outdoor recreation economy and cost Montanans jobs. Areas that are currently open and available to the public could be leased or sold outright, access could be cut off, and Montanans would be locked out of the public lands that have hunted, fished, hiked and loved for generations.
Transfer could also have dramatic health and environmental consequences. Producing clean water is a primary purpose of our national forests, and about 20% of the nation’s drinking water comes from watersheds on national forests and grasslands. Likewise, national forests and the Bureau of Land Management are required to protect air quality and to give the public opportunities to provide input on new projects. Transfer would leave these lands vulnerable to degradation and privatization and would damage habitat, cut out the public and leave Montanans vulnerable.
Transfer would threaten access, hurt our economy, jeopardize our clean air and water, and attack our outdoor way of life. Montanans overwhelmingly rejected transfer bills in 2015, 2017 and 2019, yet lawmakers continue to resurrect them. Enough with the misleading, cynical and dangerous legislation. Keep public lands in public hands.
Kari Gunderson lives in the Swan Valley and is a wilderness education and management specialist. She is not related to Rep. Gunderson.