New year, new deal 

Land swap postponement a promising sign

Just before Christmas, the Montana Land Board held its final meeting of the year. Despite a long agenda, the Board refused to be rushed into a land-swap/purchase agreement that was initiated by the Martz administration, but which ran into problems when Bitterroot hunters, legislators, and local officials hotly contested putting prime public elk habitat into private hands as part of the deal. Instead, the Board postponed the long-awaited action to more carefully consider the gains and losses of public access to public resources for public recreational purposes—which is good news for all Montanans as we head into the New Year.

The Constitutionally-established Land Board is chaired by Gov. Brian Schweitzer and comprises Secretary of State Brad Johnson, Attorney General Mike McGrath, Superintendent of Public Instruction Linda McCulloch and State Auditor John Morrison. Members of a fittingly high-powered panel, these individuals are charged with making the final decisions about what gets done to and with some 5.2 million acres of state-owned lands and about 6 million acres of mineral rights.

Most of these lands were granted to Montana by the federal government at statehood to produce revenue for the support of the state’s educational institutions. As trustees of these lands, the Board members must act in the best interests of the educational trusts funded by the revenue-producing capabilities of the holdings. But under Montana’s own Constitution, the Board is also required to consider the full range of public benefits—not just revenue production—derived from these lands, which is an important and growing component of its duties.

In the past, especially during the last 16 years of Republican administrations, it’s fair to say that revenue production was far and away the primary focus of the Trust Lands Management Division of the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC). In spite of a Democrat majority on the Board, the agency is part of the executive branch of government and hence under the immediate supervision of the governor. Consequently, time and again DNRC recommended revenue production over other values such as public access, habitat and recreation. And given that Land Board members usually have only part-time staff to research the complex decisions with which they are faced, the grim reality was that they struggled, but often lost, when it came to challenging DNRC’s conclusions.

When Brian Schweitzer took the governor’s office, however, things began to change. Schweitzer is no big fan of selling off state lands. He has also brought a highly critical eye to formerly rubber-stamped actions such as granting rights-of-way over state lands to large corporations for mere pittances. And now that DNRC works for him, under supervision of a director he appointed, the old saw of revenue first and other public values last is being critically evaluated for the first time in a long time.

The case in point is the land exchange that brought the Bitterrooters to the Capitol to defend their elk hunting grounds. Under the complex proposal, the Miller Ranch would have bought some state lands and exchanged others to consolidate their holdings. The state would then have used the revenue to purchase former Plum Creek timber lands near Lincoln which contain bull trout spawning streams and grizzly habitat, but which would also provide safer access to well-used snowmobile trails.

It was strange to watch the Bitterroot’s hunters opposing the deal while the Lincoln-area snowmobilers and the conservationists of the Blackfoot Challenge supported it. Somehow, it just didn’t seem that losing the public’s prime elk hunting in the Bitterroot for more recreational access in Lincoln was the right thing for the state to do. Despite the years of preparation that went into it, the deal rankled the Land Board, too.

According to testimony, last year an estimated 14,000 Montanans hunted elk on the land the state wanted to trade away. Plus, the projections for revenue production from the lands the state would acquire near Lincoln were questionable, since they included habitat for threatened and endangered species that could curtail future timber harvesting activities.

To his credit, Secretary of State Brad Johnson made the first move to postpone the decision, citing the presence of new information that complicated the deal. Perhaps because he is still in touch with Montanans, Johnson did not emulate his Republican counterparts in Washington, D.C., who think selling off public lands is a great idea. Rep. Denny Rehberg voted for the despicable Pombo rider that would have allowed mining companies to buy federal lands and then sell them for development purposes. Sen. Conrad Burns also says he thinks selling federal lands to private interests is the right thing to do—although he scuttled sideways like a crab when the Pombo rider hit the Senate.

Unlike Burns and Rehberg, who are surrounded by D.C. mining lobbyists, Johnson had just seen his fellow Montanans, including Republican state Senators Shockley and Laible from the Bitterroot, voice strong opposition to moving public land into private hands. He was immediately joined by Gov. Schweitzer and the other Land Board members who, while fully supporting the acquisitions in Lincoln, were loathe to lose the elk lands in the Bitterroot. When questioned by the Board as to the possibility of removing the elk parcel from the deal, the Miller Ranch representative responded with one definitive word: “No.”

The Board voted unanimously to postpone action for a month and will take up the proposal at its January meeting. While it is certainly possible that the swap will be approved, it is equally possible that the entire thing may wind up on the scrap heap with other Martz-era deals.

Regardless of how the Miller proposal turns out, however, the undeniably good news for Montanans is that our values—not those of D.C. special interests—are rising to the top. With politicians from both parties acknowledging the increasing importance Montanans place on their public lands and recreational access, our future looks better than ever—and that, my friends, is well worth toasting in the coming new year.

When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at opinion@missoulanews.com.

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