Why Land Transfer Might Work

I can understand why Greens want the status quo at all costs. Status quo gives even the worst radicals vast and unaccountable veto power

By Dave Skinner

Two weeks ago, the Beacon featured “The Fate of Federal Lands,” exploring a question more and more Montanans are asking: Should federal lands become Montana trust lands?

This is a serious question. 25 years ago, it wasn’t. Why change? Federal public lands were ours to use and enjoy, for play and work. “Land of Many Uses,” the signs said. Remember? Remember what real multiple use was like?

Then along came spotted owls. Grizzly bears. Shuttered mills. Endless litigation. Gates everywhere. Astroturf “wilderness for logging” bills. Bugs galore. Dead trees for miles. And the fires?

So many – Moose, Robert, Fool, Ahorn, Wedge, Skyland, Doris, Jocko, Chippy, Brush – I can’t remember them all. So many – burning more ground in 15 years on the Flathead than was ever harvested in the century since 1910. Just wonderful.

So, by an 81-19 vote in the House, and a 46-4 vote in the Senate, the 2013 Montana Legislature passed a joint resolution (SJ-15) authorizing an interim committee study of the “management of certain federal lands, assessing risks, and identifying solutions.”

After a year of preparation, hearings and scads of paper, the Environmental Quality Council released a draft (and appendices) of “Evaluating Federal Land Management in Montana,” which you can find at the link posted at the bottom of this column. Comments are due Aug. 16.

However, the draft was almost killed in committee. EQC Democrats pounced on those parts of the document discussing the possibility of the respective states gaining ownership of federal public lands, except national parks, wildlife refuges and wildernesses, of course.

I watched the final EQC hearings and found the histrionic hypocrisy impressive. For example, after Miles City representative Bill McChesney (D) declared, “we’re not gonna go there,” on a transfer, he conceded federal managers are “hamstrung by laws that don’t work.” Yep, laws that don’t work because Congress won’t fix them.

Matching the blather were Sen. Jon Tester (D) and Gov. Steve Bullock (D). In a widely-run op-ed, they claimed state control would blow Montana’s budget to smithereens, forcing wholesale sell-offs “barring access to anglers, hunters, mountain bikers, backpackers and hikers” while not mentioning loggers, ORVers, campers, cowboys or Sunday drivers.

Never mind that nobody is “barred” from Montana state lands today, at least if they help pay the recreation freight with a conservation license, which is only eight bucks for Montanans and ten bucks for visitors.

Bullock and Tester also implied that a transfer or sale to Montana would lead to “strip malls and condos along ridgelines and streams.” Oh, sure, the bulldozers will be on top of Columbia Mountain minutes after the transfer takes place.

Now, I can understand why Greens want the status quo at all costs. Status quo gives even the worst radicals vast and unaccountable veto power. Because greens are so vital to the electoral hopes of Montana Democrats – well, Democrats want the status quo, too.

Hype aside, a transfer of multiple-use federal lands to Montana might work, and well. Between robber-baron leveraged speculators, the corporate REIT slick-it-off-for-cash philosophy of large timber companies and the burn-it-flat reality of current Forest Service management is a proven middle ground – Montana state trust lands.

Montana DNRC’s mission is to produce revenues (actually profit) from its holdings for schools, within a strong mandate to not overharvest. More importantly, DNRC’s timber program is overseen by people Montanans elect. Do Tester and Bullock seriously believe Montana voters would ever allow the Land Board to approve massive sales of lands managed of, by and for Montana?

Can you imagine if Congress got off its dead fanny and reformed some of these crazy federal land and environmental laws? Congress could – if the states most negatively affected by federal land management dysfunction pass legislation calling for a transfer.

Can you imagine if the voters of those states decided to elect Congresscritters who will stonewall, filibuster and wrangle all of Congress in order to either change the federal laws – or as a last resort, offer these lands at fair market value to the states that want these lands as their own? Environmentalists can, and that’s why they’re saying Montanans shouldn’t.

Link to comment page on EQC study reports and draft bills (SJ-15): http://leg.mt.gov/css/Committees/Interim/2013-2014/EQC/Public-Comment/public-comment.asp

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