HELENA – Gov. Brian Schweitzer on Monday told federal land managers looking for ways to work with Montana on the Obama administration’s land conservation plan that he was interested but skeptical given the state’s lingering problems with the federal government.
The governor met with administration officials from several agencies who were pitching the “America’s Great Outdoors” initiative, more than a year in the works and the product of public meetings around the country.
Schweitzer said he thinks the program’s initial rollout was bungled, especially since ranchers in north-central Montana are still riled over a proposal they believed could lead to federal closures of land they rely on for grazing.
The governor told the land managers he is interested in the idea — but leery considering Montana’s past experiences with federal officials on issues such as bison and natural resources.
Schweitzer said he wants bison hunting to be allowed in Yellowstone National Park, and he wants land managers to seriously look at his idea to relocate excess bison to the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area.
Both proposals previously have been ignored or rebuffed, he said.
The governor said he would deliver on a past threat that Montana will stop slaughtering excess bison that leave the park, in an effort to force the issue back on the federal government. He said the state has been bearing the brunt of the criticism over the bison problem, a quagmire in Montana politics for years.
Schweitzer said he was not going to “have the federal government stand back and let us take the black eye.”
The governor also brought up his deal with British Columbia to protect land around Glacier National Park from natural resource development, which he said was made difficult by federal agencies that didn’t help.
Anne Castle, an assistant secretary in the Interior Department, said she would relay Schweitzer’s concerns to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.
Castle said the federal government wants to partner with states on the “Great Outdoors” conservation plan to protect areas in a way that locals support.
The Obama administration has said the new federal effort to protect public lands, relying largely on existing programs, would double federal spending on land and water conservation to $900 million. The money would be used to buy private land for public use and provide grants to states.
In Montana, early iterations of the proposal raised an uproar among some ranchers who feared it could lead to presidential monument declarations in Western states that they argue can take land out of production. Those fears appeared at least partially substantiated when the administration floated the idea of creating quasi-wilderness areas through an administrative process — before scuttling it earlier this month amid stiff political opposition.
Schweitzer said those fears mean the administration needs to do a better job of selling the new program.
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