The textured debate over federal land management sprouted another partisan wrinkle last week when a panel of Montana lawmakers, charged with scrutinizing the direction of the state’s public landscape, voted to relegate the proposed transfer of federal lands to state ownership – a GOP-driven platform plank that has gained leverage in recent months – to a course of last resort.
Once a fringe idea given its logistical, legal and constitutional hurdles, assuming control over lands now controlled by federal agencies has become a popular stance adopted by Montana’s conservative legislative candidates, particularly as flaws in federal management practices become more pronounced in the wake of devastating wildfire seasons, diminished timber harvests and economic harm.
For the past eight months, a panel called the Environmental Quality Council has been cutting through the political rhetoric and examining the guts of the issue, outlining a blueprint for making federal land management a more efficient and collaborative process.
The panel on July 10 voted to advance a report on how to encourage more state involvement in management of federal lands in Montana, but amended the document to peg a land transfer to the state as a “last resort.”
Composed of legislators and citizen members, the council also amended the report to say the governor should convene a “federal lands committee” to coordinate land management with federal officials.
The votes came one day after the council’s Democratic members said the original version had a “hidden agenda” of promoting the transfer of federal lands to the state.
The report, called “Evaluating Federal Land Management in Montana,” makes recommendations for public land management, including reducing wildland fire fuels, increasing economic production and maintaining multiple-use access.
In recent months, some conservatives in a 12-state western region have been pushing the land transfer, saying state management would eliminate yards of bureaucratic red tape, promote quicker decision-making on logging, mining and other activity on federal public lands and be a boon to local economies.
Opponents – including Montana’s two Democratic U.S. senators and Gov. Steve Bullock – say the transfer is a radical idea with tenuous political support that would saddle the state with exorbitant and crippling management costs, and perhaps lead to the sale of at least some public lands to private interests.
“I personally think it is preposterous but there seems to be a gathering of momentum and interest,” said state Sen. Ed Lieser, D-Whitefish, a member of the 16-member EQC and a retired forester. “Look at all the candidates. Every single candidate at a debate earlier this year pledged to support it. So we can’t just dismiss this anymore.”
Sen. Jennifer Fielder, R-Thompson Falls, has supported the transfer idea, and last year sponsored the legislative resolution to study federal land management and identify risks and solutions related to what some perceive as the mismanagement of resources in the state.
Earlier this year, she helped organize the Legislative Summit on the Transfer for Public Lands in Salt Lake City, which was attended by more than 50 legislators, county commissioners and other leaders of the 12 western states most affected by the federal government’s sizable footprint on the western landscape.
In Northwest Montana alone, 2.3 million acres of national forest fall under the management of the Flathead National Forest, with an additional 2.2 million acres under federal jurisdiction in the Kootenai National Forest. Statewide, nearly 30 million acres of land are managed by federal agencies such as the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management.
Proponents of a land transfer cite a flagging natural resource industry, environmental degradation, loss of tax revenue, and numerous other reasons for the effort; however, based on the legislative council’s decision, the transfer would be considered only after all other options are exhausted.
But Fielder and other proponents say Montana residents are better poised to manage their lands than Washington bureaucrats, and that the federal agencies have been struggling for decades to effectively manage lands against litigation and plodding analysis procedures.
“The idea is that it would be Montanans making the decisions more quickly,” Fielder said of a transfer. “To me it is not a partisan issue and it should not be a partisan issue because the lands affect all of our lives in so many ways. Montanans care about these lands a lot more than folks in Washington D.C. Everything about why we love Montana is affected by how we manage these 30 million acres and we have got to do better. We are past the point of this being an emergency.”
But critics argue that the transfer would be an unreasonably heavy lift for the state to shoulder – an expensive millstone that would cost untold millions of dollars while jeopardizing access to public lands, which repeated surveys show are important to the majority of Montana residents.
“I think they pursue this at their peril. In my opinion the majority of people don’t support this,” Lieser said.
In Montana, the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation manages 599,000 forest acres, compared to the U.S. Forest Service’s 17.1 million acres in Montana, with state timber sales generating an average of $8.9 million per year for the former, and an average of $1.6 million a year for the latter, according to the EQC working group.
The revenue disparity between Montana’s state and federal land agencies is significant and alarming, but Department of Natural Resources and Conservation Director John Tubbs says it’s an apples-to-oranges management juxtaposition.
The federal land takeover proposals gloss over the practical realities, he said, like whether state or local agencies have the capacity to manage millions of acres of public land or the tax increases that would be necessary to finance all the activities they envision.
Currently, the state employs one forester per 7,500 acres of land, and would have to hire scores of trained workers to effectively manage such a significant uptick in acreage, Tubbs said.
“If we get all these millions of acres you are going to need a lot of foresters. We are not built for that today,” Tubbs said. “None of the challenges that the federal agencies face today would go away just because you put the state of Montana’s name on it.”
The DNRC has a constitutional mission to maximize revenues from school trust lands – a singular charge far less complex than the Forest Service’s “sustainable multiple-use management concept” to meet the diverse needs of people while protecting the resource, he said.
Further, land transfers would require an act of Congress, which critics say would only further gum up the transfer process, while wildland firefighting costs and payroll costs would fall to the taxpayers.
“If the state were to own the land the citizens of Montana as taxpayers would have a heavy burden ahead of them,” Tubbs said.
As the DNRC’s state forester, Bob Harrington directly oversees 4 percent of Montana’s forestland, which seems insignificant compared to the U.S. Forest Service’s 59 percent share.
“That allows us to be a little more nimble with our management practices,” he said.
Harrington says comparing the state’s management policies and its relative dearth of litigation and “analysis paralysis” is not a fair analogue to the Forest Service’s, which is painted with a larger target.
“Both myself and the administration are not supportive of this concept. We really don’t think it’s workable and in the end it is not going to be the success that its proponents advocate,” Harrington said. “Right now our focus is on helping the current model work and helping agencies meet their harvest goals using science-based technology.”
That’s the thrust of Gov. Bullock’s recently unveiled “Forests in Focus” initiative, which he said comes at “a critical juncture for the future of Montana’s forests.”
The multi-faceted initiative is meant to accelerate the pace and scale of forest restoration, watershed protection and wildlife habitat improvement on private and federal forests across the state.
“We are at a crossroads with forest health, our mills and the future condition of our forests,” Bullock said. “The aftermath of a years-long mountain pine beetle epidemic, stalled projects on thousands of acres of national forests, and continued threats from wildfires provide a strong basis for increased focus on how we manage forests and how we ensure we have a vibrant wood products industry providing good-paying jobs for Montanans.”
The governor called upon land managers, timber industry representatives, the conservation community, private landowners, elected officials and others to work together to meet the challenges facing Montana’s forests.
As part of the initiative, Bullock said $3 million from the state fire suppression account will be available for forest health, fuels reduction and watershed restoration projects. Some of the funding will also be funneled to the Forest Service in support of projects on priority landscapes identified under the 2014 Farm Bill.
The governor’s initiative sits better with Tubbs and Harrington.
“We know there are problems, but this engages the agencies and identifies some timber management issues,” Tubbs said. “It takes a 360-degree look at the forest issues in Montana and examines the whole suite of resources.”
And while proponents such as Fielder think the land-transfer proposal has legs, she agrees that it needs to transcend the realm of political rhetoric.
“We can’t just banter about it for political talking points. We need to make real changes,” she said.
Lieser said he’s no apologist for the Forest Service, but having worked for the agency he understands its challenges.
“The challenges are recognized by many. But if all that land were in state management or ownership they would be responsible for fire suppression costs and that could easily amount to more than $100 million or more,” he said. “Where is that money going to come from?”