On a recent Thursday afternoon, Jennifer Fielder sits in a hallway outside her office on the fourth floor of the Montana Capitol in Helena, leafing through a four-inch-thick binder crammed with bill drafts, leaflets, policy statements and news clippings. Every scrap of paper relates in some way to the public lands issues this Republican state senator from Thompson Falls is pushing in the 2015 legislature, and she pauses occasionally to look over an article or a resolution.
Over the past few years, Fielder has become her caucus' de facto expert on a controversial movement to see federal lands managed by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management transferred to state control. It's a topic that has taken her from small town-hall meetings in rural Montana counties to conferences and workshops in Salt Lake City, home of Utah state representative and lands transfer kingpin Ken Ivory. Even the protective case on Fielder's smartphone is emblazoned with an image of the United States shaded red to mark federal lands and fractured where East meets West—the adopted logo of Ivory's nonprofit American Lands Council.
Fielder paints a bleak picture of the current state of national forest management in Montana. She and her husband, Paul, moved to northwestern Montana from central Washington in 2007, about six years after Paul bought property in the area. Hunters and trappers both, the Fielders have since become prominent characters on the conservative side of public lands debates in the Flathead. To hear Jennifer tell it, the federal government has dropped the ball when it comes to maintaining a healthy, accessible and productive landscape. Hence her increasingly fervent interest in the transfer of public lands issue, and the litany of bills she's introduced in the past few months to explore such a path.
"We're seeing so many closures, so many restrictions," she says. "The fire hazards are so bad. Trails are in bad shape, in disrepair. The maintenance backlog on the trails is really horrendous. We're seeing money—federal money—spent to actually take out and obliterate the old logging roads, which are great trails to walk and ride bikes on. But they're actually spending money to remove those trails, and that really concerns me."
Fielder hardly stands alone in pushing the transfer agenda, which she is quick to note does not include national parks or designated wilderness areas. Since Ivory's Transfer of Public Lands Act passed into law in Utah in 2012, conservative activists and policy makers at all levels of government in the West have flocked to the issue like gun enthusiasts to a shooting range. The National Association of Counties officially adopted a resolution advocating for "the full and immediate implementation of the transfer of public lands" on July 22, 2013. Less than six months later, the Republican National Committee ratified an even lengthier statement of support. The Wyoming Legislature last month approved a bill commissioning a study on the transfer of federal lands to state control. Other legislative proposals have popped up in Arizona, Nevada, Washington and New Mexico.
"We've been seeing this idea catch on across the country," Fielder says. "We've been seeing states all over the West getting engaged in it."
Yet for many on both sides of the aisle, no issue seems as wasteful, ill-conceived or dead on arrival as the transfer of public lands. Hundreds of conservationists, sportsmen and citizens flooded the Capitol rotunda in February for a rally sponsored by the Montana Wilderness Association, Montana Wildlife Federation, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers and The Nature Conservancy. Gov. Steve Bullock spoke out against the very measures Fielder and Rep. Kerry White, her lands transfer counterpart in the state House, were pushing with such gusto. The following month, the Montana Bowhunters Association made a firm stand against one of White's transfer proposals, urging the House Natural Resources Committee to "kill this bill." Despite transfer proponents' arguments that such action would help revitalize Montana's stagnated timber industry, the Montana Wood Products Association clearly stated this year that "we do not—at this time—support the movement to transfer federal lands to the state of Montana for either ownership or management responsibilities."
In fact, it appears that a majority of Montanans view the transfer of public lands issue with either annoyance or disdain. And yet the conversation continues to be debated in the media, at the Capitol and in communities throughout the state, leaving many wondering where the support and drive on this issue lies. Deeper analysis shows Fielder and White—whose Gallatin Valley-based nonprofit Citizens for Balanced Use has advocated for studying the issue—are propelling a discussion that has attracted the attention and admiration of a particular subset of the right wing, one primarily incubated in the northwest reaches of Montana. Revelations regarding these associations have sparked a whole new level of concern, from out-of-state influence powered by taxpayer money to grassroots support from former militia movement activists dead-set against the federal government.
"This sort of stuff in Sanders County is happening across the West," says Rachel Carroll-Rivas, co-director of the Montana Human Rights Network, "and that's not coincidental."
The proliferation of the lands transfer movement throughout the western United States is part of a specific strategy. Utah's legislature served as an early control group for Ivory's transfer of public lands experiment in 2012, and after it passed, Ivory began peddling his idea to other regions. Before long, county governments in several states were paying thousands of dollars for memberships in his newly founded American Lands Council. Critics branded the effort as an updated version of the famed Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970s. Undeterred by such comments, Ivory established a pyramidal plan for facilitating lands transfers, with education as the foundation on which to build negotiation, legislation and, if needed, litigation. He crafted his message around three key promises: better access, better health and better productivity.
"We look at this as the only solution big enough to better fund education, better care for the lands and the forests, protect access ... and grow state and local economies," Ivory told the Independent in a phone interview in November 2013, just prior to an ALC tour in Montana.
Ivory traveled to western Montana in late 2013 to present his ideas before county commissions and town-hall meetings. Former commissioner Suzy Foss hosted him in Ravalli County; the nonprofit Sanders Natural Resource Council did likewise in Sanders County. Fielder accompanied him throughout the Flathead, her faith in both him and the ALC already established through her sponsorship of several lands transfer bills in the 2013 legislature and research into the transfer issue conducted by both her and her husband. Ivory and Fielder delivered speeches to commissioners in both Mineral and Lincoln counties. According to minutes from the Lincoln County meeting, dated Dec. 13, 2013, Ivory talked about wildfire hazards, about difficulties adequately funding education, and about dues paid by other counties for membership in the ALC, explaining most donate $5,000.
"Representative Ivory preached 'Knowledge and Courage' of taking back the land for the State's control and not federal," the minutes read. "He cited history of the land becoming federal lands and why the states should have control."
The history and legal defenses for public land transfers touted by the ALC hinge heavily on a debatable reading of the western enabling acts granting statehood. Ivory argues those enabling acts included a promise that the federal government would "forever disclaim all rights and title" to public lands in western states. As evidence, he points to Congress' divestment of most of its public lands holdings in the eastern U.S. back in the mid-19th century. Transfer proponents continue to invoke this argument in furthering the ALC's regional agenda. To bolster this Enabling Act theory, Ivory and others make repeated reference to historic political statements and news articles from the times they were ratified.