All land—public and private—deserves good stewardship 

What's the smartest, most secure kind of investment? A long-term, self-sustaining one. In the United States, a big one is land. Yes, the U.S. could cash out on some of its land now, but before doing that, let's pause for a moment to contemplate how valuable all that land will be in 100 years.

I grew up on the Clark Fork river, where extractive monopolies from a century ago are still costing taxpayers billions to clean up. As other countries continue to focus solely on extraction, pushing development at any cost, U.S. public lands are different, gaining value with responsibly balanced and diverse use. Each unit is unique to its region, and its stewardship by the federal government runs in concert with private landowners.

Only about 30 percent of Montana is federal public land. That's less than Idaho (61 percent), Wyoming (48 percent), Colorado (35 percent) and California (46 percent). And yet, these public lands drive our economy. They support high-paying mining, timber and recreation jobs. They attract tourism dollars to the state, and they boost nearby local economies. There is consensus among Montanans that land is our most valuable resource.

The feds have well-intentioned programs to direct revenue and royalties generated from public land back to local communities. The Payments in Lieu of Taxes and Secure Rural Schools programs send tens of millions of dollars to Montana counties each year. The Land and Water Conservation Fund finances local recreation and parks projects. It has sent about $540 million to Montana over its 50-year lifespan.

Congress can champion programs like these. Removing arbitrary caps and pegging royalty rates to market prices would strengthen Payments in Lieu of Taxes. Secure Rural Schools recently expired, but could be reauthorized at any time. The Land and Water Conservation Fund is authorized at $900 million a year, yet it receives only about a third of that in real funding. Imagine all the great projects that could be built around the country with an extra $600 million a year.

And those are relatively obscure programs compared to our national parks. In 2015 alone, national park units in Montana generated nearly half a billion dollars in visitor spending and supported more than 8,000 jobs in the state.

  • photo by Alex Sakariassen

Blocking fire-sale bills like HR621 (recently withdrawn by Utah congressman Jason Chaffetz) is only the first step. Public lands supporters shouldn't claim victory simply for moving the needle back to zero and returning to business as usual. We need to work every angle to ensure that our public lands are serving the public interest to the fullest. That means advocating for more diverse energy jobs on public lands, expanding recreational access, pegging fees to market prices, sunsetting leases and strengthening ecological and public health through more collaborative conservation practices.

We should not stop there if we want to make returns on land investments truly long-term. Private landowners care about their land, too. Let's work with them. To counter congressional federal land disposal efforts, let's lobby for something like the opposite, a private land stewardship effort.

In fact, this is already underway. Private landowners are working with their neighbors to restore native range in north-central Montana. Family farms and ranches are working with land trusts to put their property into conservation easements. Corporations are creating environmental asset accounts to embed directly into their financial statements.

How can the federal government help? It could pursue more market-friendly environmental policies, like pricing pollutants instead of regulating them, and encouraging individual landowners to take stewardship into their own hands.

One option worth pondering is reforming split-estate laws to allow private landowners to buy subsurface mineral rights from the government. Selling federal subsurface rights to conscientious landowners will point us in a more positive direction than auctioning off vast swaths below market rates to remote bidders seeking to exploit a parcel on a map. This would keep existing public lands intact and support the case to peg federal mineral royalty rates to market prices.

There are practical solutions that we probably haven't even imagined yet. As the coalition grows to block a public lands fire sale, let's dream up some creative ways that will ensure better long-term stewardship of all land, public and private. Our future generations will thank us for it.

Dan West grew up in Missoula and formerly worked for Colorado Sen. Mark Udall on energy and natural resources issues.

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