It’s a big idea and it’s rightfully reaping big debate nationwide: Can and should states assume control of federally held public lands within our borders?
Many colleagues and experts throughout the West have studied the issue intensively, and we now believe there’s no reason why we can’t. The challenge is to get the facts on the table, put protections in place consistent with Montana values, and prepare our state agencies for an orderly transition.
Montana’s study of public lands shows Montanans want more multiple use access, reduction of wildfire fuels, and more economic production. But federal agencies systematically continue to do the opposite of what we want.
Shifting to state-based public land ownership would mean Montanans – not Congress, the President, or any other state – would decide how much access, use, protection, and production we would want to see. I cannot imagine any collection of people who care about Montana’s communities, environment and economy more than Montanans do. There is no question that 25 million acres of federally controlled public lands in our state directly impact our land, water, air, wildlife, economy and people in a number of ways. The same cannot be said of states like New York, New Jersey or Florida.
With the national government facing insurmountable debt, the threat of the federal government selling our public lands to the highest bidder is imminent. In fact HR 2657, which authorizes the sale of hundreds of thousands of acres, passed out of a congressional committee earlier this year. They can sell public lands without our input, and they are undoubtedly under pressure by foreign debt holders to do so. That’s a big concern.
On the bright side, a multitude of studies reveal legal standing and economic advantages favoring state based public land management. Nevada’s most recent analysis shows a net gain up to $1.5 billion per year if they take over management of Bureau of Land Management (BLM) properties in their state, even while maintaining existing uses such as recreational access, grazing, mineral, and other use rights.
With states implementing a responsible balance of protection, use, and economic production on forest and rangelands, we could keep public access routes and recreation facilities open for all visitors, reduce wildfire fuels, and enhance wildlife habitat. Keeping resource revenues in state could result in millions of new dollars available for local roads, schools, law enforcement, emergency services, utilities, state and local wild land firefighting departments, and other services.
Shifting to state-based management would result in priorities consistent with Montana values. Better access, more jobs, increased funding for public services, protection of our environment, and active prevention of catastrophic wildfires could become the rule rather than the exception.
As chair of Montana’s study of federal land management, I continue to assess available information and consider a variety of solutions to correct problems with federal land management. I welcome your comments and questions at www.jenniferfielder.us
Jennifer Fielder is a Republican state senator from Thompson Falls
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