The Nature Conservancy late last month closed an $85 million deal for 117,152 acres along the Blackfoot River, building on nearly a decade and a half of work securing long-term protections for parcels formerly held by Plum Creek Timber. Wildland advocates, sportsmen and elected officials hailed the purchase as a boon for conservation, public access and economic opportunity. But those same voices have grown increasingly concerned that a political movement gaining momentum throughout the West could result in a major backslide for public land ownership.
Over the past few years, Republican lawmakers in a number of western states have expressed a desire to see Congress transfer tens of millions of acres of federal lands into state hands. The movement is spearheaded largely by the American Lands Council and its founder, Utah Rep. Ken Ivory, who in 2012 authored the first and so far only transfer of public lands bill to pass into law. In Montana, the idea has caught on not only among some county governments but a number of state legislators as well. The Montana Republican Party last year voted to include transfer of public lands as a plank in its official platform.
“The folks that understand the issue support it pretty broadly,” says Sen. Jennifer Fielder, R-Thompson Falls, whose agenda for the 2015 Montana Legislature is in part focused on exploring the transfer of public lands. “There’s resource specialists, there’s county commissioners, there’s general citizens, sportsmen. We see what’s going on on the landscape out there and it’s not good. Federal lands are being locked up, they’re being mismanaged. The policies coming out of Washington, D.C., have basically failed.”
The issue became a flashpoint for the legislature’s Environmental Quality Council over the past two years as it conducted an interim study of federal land management in Montana. Hundreds of state residents submitted comments expressing everything from outrage to embarrassment that a takeover of federal lands was even being considered. Fielder says the study highlighted a host of problem areas in federal management, from wildfire control to public access. She adds the study’s findings prompted her to request several bills in 2015, including a measure to launch another interim study, this one aimed specifically at transfer of public lands.
In response to Fielder’s proposals and the movement in general, the Montana Wilderness Association plans to hold a rally outside the state Capitol Feb. 16 opposing the transfer of public lands. The nonprofit is one of many voices arguing that the financial burden resulting from such a move would inevitably force the state to sell off vast acres of property. U.S. Sen. Jon Tester stands firmly against the transfer idea for that very reason, as does Gov. Steve Bullock.
“It’s unrealistic to think that we could take all of these lands in and that this legislature would have an appetite to pay for the management of those lands,” Bullock tells the Independent.
Proponents of the land transfer have often bolstered their position by repeating Bullock’s comments about shortcomings in federal land management in Montana. The American Lands Council in 2013 released a heavily edited video of Bullock outlining those complaints before the Western Governors’ Association, a video Bullock says “amused” him.
“By and large, it seems to me like it’s still something that a small group are speaking of,” he says, “and something that is irresponsible for the long-term best interests of our state.”
Conservation advocates like TNC, however, are far from entertained. Given the widespread public acclaim garnered by the latest purchase and its predecessor, the 310,000-acre Montana Legacy Project, TNC land conservation specialist Mary Hollow questions just how much public support the transfer of public lands has in the state. She adds that small communities like those along the Blackfoot River are the people who have approached TNC about acquiring private property for public ownership in the first place.
“It’s a very disappointing dialogue in my opinion,” Hollow says. “It is not well informed, and it’s not locally grown. The last point there is the thing that bothers me the most about it. This is a conversation that’s been generated by the American Lands Council and sold to a legislator to carry. That’s not a Montana way, and that’s certainly not how Montanans operate.”
Fielder says she doesn’t buy into the fear that a transfer would reverse the work of groups like TNC and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and result in public lands passing into private hands. Despite estimates from Bullock’s office that state ownership of federal lands could result in a $40 million annual increase in firefighting costs alone, Fielder believes the land and its resources can fund itself. It’s Congress, she says, that’s attempting to sell public lands to the highest bidder. She doesn’t want to see those lands sold, she adds, and is “going to take some steps to prevent the sales” during this session.
Fielder claims she knows numerous hunters and anglers who support the transfer of public lands. But Joe Perry, a barley farmer, hunter and co-founder of the Montana Sportsmen Alliance, says he knows of no one in the sportsmen community supporting the idea. After all the work various groups have put into securing land for public access, Perry considers the transfer debate frustrating and “very real.”
“They want the people of the United States—that’s all people of the United States—to give land to the state of Montana and other states,” he says. “What about those other people that live in other states? I can’t hardly imagine they’d be very tickled about that.”