Land Transfer is a Road to Ruin

Many folks miss an important detail about land management: it’s expensive

By Rob Breeding

If your goal is to destroy hunting there’s a clear path to follow: transfer ownership of federal lands to the states. It might take a couple decades, but if you put that ball in motion this is the inevitable result.

Maybe you think I’m exaggerating? Consider the opportunities federal lands offer hunters. Montana has large accessible tracts all over the state that we can enter, without need to seek permission, or the burden of entrance fees, to hunt.

Now imagine Montana without those resources. Understand that the real impetus behind the “transfer” movement is the eventual privatization of these lands. The states will never be able to afford to manage these properties, and once title is transferred to the state, the pressure to sell some or all of these lands will be overwhelming.

Vast accessible public land is the backbone of hunting and wildlife management in Montana, as it is in much of the Northern Rockies. But forces across the region are pushing land transfers as some sort of wonder drug for resource issues such as forest management. They’ve had some success in Utah, and in Wyoming one of the GOP candidates for governor ran on a platform that included opening up Yellowstone to oil and gas development.

Fortunately, that candidate lost handily to the incumbent, also a conservative who nonetheless strongly opposed his challenger’s daft plan for the world’s first national park.

The good news in Montana — where the Republican Party has endorsed transferring federal lands to the states — is that the idea seems to be losing steam. The Legislature’s interim Environmental Quality Council recently removed a recommendation to pursue the land transfer, after public comment on the proposal ran 194-2 against. Also, polling of Montanans in both parties shows strong resistance to the idea of selling federal lands

Transfer rather than selling is more popular, as we’re all susceptible to the clarion call of local control. The suggestion is that local folks know what’s best, and if we just get the federal bureaucrats out of the way things will be much easier to manage.

Maybe. I suppose that if the transfer of lands also meant those lands were no longer governed by environmental laws, it would be easier to implement local control. But I doubt most folks would like what it might look like. Logging, for instance, needs to be pretty intensive to be profitable. Large diameter trees have to be included, not just the dog hair thickets that increase fire danger. You probably have to get back to clear cutting steep, highly erodible slopes as well. Do that and maybe Montana could make a profit off the transferred lands.

Many folks miss an important detail about land management: it’s expensive. We may like to complain about what a poor job the feds do, but the reality is that we’re getting the kind of management we’re willing to pay for. The Forest Service budget gets squeezed every year, and if it’s a bad fire season, it gets squeezed even more. Up to 42 percent of the agency’s budget is now spent on fire suppression, according to a USDA report released last month.

The Forest Service spends money on fire, with staffing up 110 percent since 1998, according to the report. But agency staffing for land management has decreased by 35 percent during the same period.

Guess what happens when you stop devoting resources to land management? The land stops getting managed. This isn’t an issue of state versus federal control, it’s an issue of whether or not we’re willing to pay to do the job properly.

Give that job to the states, and we’ll either need to raise local taxes, manage these lands purely for revenue at the expense of conservation, or, and this is what I think secretly motivates many in transfer movement, sell off those lands local governments can’t afford to own.

And with it we’ll sell off our hunting legacy.

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