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Debating the Future of Public Lands

Sen. Jennifer Fielder and Rep. Ed Lieser squared off over whether to transfer public lands from federal to state control

The future of public lands could become a hot topic during the upcoming legislative session and two lawmakers met in Kalispell last week to debate the idea of transferring public lands from the federal government to the state.

Republican Sen. Jennifer Fielder of Thompson Falls squared off against Democratic Rep. Ed Lieser of Whitefish during an hour-long debate held at Flathead Valley Community College on Dec. 11 and hosted by Montanans for Multiple Use.

Fielder, vice chair of the Montana GOP and chair of the Montana Environmental Quality Council’s SJ-15 Federal Land Study Working Group, said that federal lands are being mismanaged and that transferring national forest land to the state was a sensible idea that would put locals in control of the land they use and cherish. But Lieser, who has a degree in natural resource management and worked for the U.S. Forest Service for nearly 30 years, said the transfer of public lands was a “reckless” and “radical” idea that would never succeed and could result in a loss of public access.

Utah, Idaho, Nevada and Wyoming are actively looking at efforts to wrest control of public lands from the federal government and there are at least two bills being proposed in the Montana Legislature to study the idea.

Fielder noted that in the eastern part of the country, states control more than 95 percent of public lands, but west of the Rockies, states only control 50 percent.

“Who can make decisions better than Montanans?” Fielder asked the crowd. “People from New York and New Jersey can’t make land decisions for us just like we can’t make decisions about their subway systems. The subways are important to them just like public lands are important to us.”

But Lieser said that any effort to transfer the land would end up in court.   

“Transferring public lands will end up in a lengthy legal battle … It would be a horrible waste of time and money when we could be using that time and money to collaborate with the federal government,” Lieser said. “These lands are American lands and they belong to every citizen of the United States. That’s the way it is.”

Lieser added that the state does not have the resources to manage more public land. For example, the U.S. Forest Service has more firefighting resources that can be moved around the country to fight massive wildfires. He said that as wildfires become more destructive a big fire season could costs millions of dollars, money state agencies don’t have. He worries that the state would have to sell off land to cover its bills and thus public access would be reduced.

But Fielder said the state could bring in more money to cover firefighting costs if it did more to develop public lands.

“Money does grow on trees because trees produce timber and mines produce ore and right now (the federal government) has it all locked away from development,” Fielder said.

Fielder said that the transfer of public lands has been successful in parts of the United States and Canada and there is nothing stopping the same from happening here. But Lieser countered that management issues on federally owned lands stemmed from budget cuts and climate change and that having them under the state umbrella wouldn’t solve anything.

“In the face of dramatic changes on the land it is obvious that changes need to be made, but transferring land from the federal government to the state is not the solution,” he said.

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