Climbing the Greased Pole

By Beacon Staff

For the past four decades, Montanans have watched in dismay as our state has become increasingly subject to federal legislation and regulation – while jobs and economic activity have dwindled. Our country teeters on the brink of economic disaster – but the majority of elected officials seem paralyzed when faced with producing solutions.

Consider the languishing “Forest Jobs and Recreation Act” proposed by Sen. Jon Tester. The thrust of the bill is to allocate federal lands for wilderness, recreational pursuits, and promote forest employment through forest health and restoration projects. The proposed legislation pertains to three of Montana’s major forested areas – the Beaverhead-Deerlodge, Blackfoot-Lolo, and Kootenai/Yaak.

Public discourse over this legislation demonstrates a need for innovative, citizen-driven solutions to the gridlock created by past initiatives. During a prior Kootenai Stakeholders meeting, Tester’s gracious representative provided an overview of the bill. After this update it seemed unlikely the bill could foster an environment enabling Montanans’ entrepreneurial juices to flow in Lincoln County and thereby create Montana jobs.

It became apparent when, upon questioning, Tester’s representative revealed that no economic analysis had been completed concerning the effects of the bill in Lincoln County. Amazingly and regretfully, the potential to create jobs in Lincoln County and generate revenue for the county treasury remains unknown.

To glean tangible and non-tangible benefits from this proposal, we Montanans need to “think outside the box.” If our shared objective is sound stewardship and fair land allocation, this bill could provide an opportunity to undertake “pilot projects” within the forested areas under consideration. The bill could create local experimental platforms – with different management structures, through various interested parties, in a controlled fashion.

An entity such as the Yaak Valley Forest Council (YVFC) – a capable local group with talented members, a network of associates and keen interest in the Kootenai/Yaak Valley portion of the bill – could be provided with legislated entrepreneurial authority to manage the area under consideration without cost to the federal government, under scrutiny of Lincoln County officials and affected community.

A business entity could be created and charged with generating revenue and creating employment opportunities in the Kootenai/Yaak Valley area. Revenue could come from usage fees, leasing, resource extraction, grants or donations (so long as these were entirely private, not originating with taxpayer or other funds of government origin).

Since the Roderick Butte area does not meet the rigorous standards of the 1964 Wilderness Act, it could be designated a “Primitive Area.” The YVFC would have the flexibility to manage it as a green, healthy, attractive primitive area, non-threatening to adjacent properties.

A troublesome result of federal land policy is its negative effect on local government coffers. In the 1970s, Lincoln County had the highest per capita income in Montana. Now it has the lowest. This project would augment the Lincoln County treasury with a portion of the proceeds it generated.

These, among other business and organizational details, would provide a framework to maintain the primitive area, provide for job creation, and produce tangible outcomes.

This experiment could be undertaken on a “pilot project” basis, for a time period such as five years – long enough for the successes and failures of the project to be evaluated. Other groups could bring proposals forward for entrepreneurial stewardship and management of other federal land areas.

For too long, federal land policy has produced a race to the bottom. There has been a deficit of good ideas produced and implemented to accommodate economic and environmental interests.

At the same time, our national debt continues to escalate and we accrue tens of trillions of dollars of unfunded liabilities. America’s financial household is worse than bankrupt when we consider our future generations. We need innovative, entrepreneurial thinking to put our country on the path toward solvency.

Tester’s bill could provide one important stepping stone toward this goal. It could create a platform for novel approaches to land management. Whether on federal lands or other government policy issues, entrepreneurial stewardship is a policy approach whose time has come.

Jerry Okonski of Libby has established forest enterprises in Montana, British Columbia, Virginia and Chile over the last 37 years.