Rally for Public Land

Supporters of the transfer thought Montanans were stupid enough to be duped by that piece of junk legislation, the rally hopefully taught them otherwise

By Rob Breeding

I couldn’t attend the rally in Helena last week as work kept me away. But I was pleased to see the numbers worked out much like previous measures of public opinion on the daft scheme to transfer federal lands to the states.

According to a story in the Helena Independent-Record, 400 to 500 people were there to voice their opposition. Photos of the event showed the Capitol rotunda packed with opponents. The reporting didn’t offer a count of transfer supporters, but another photo showed maybe a half dozen folks off to the side holding signs supporting this legislation.

The tact is to pretend this is about transferring the land to state ownership because, of course, the state can manage it better, all the while knowing that the transfer will simply be the first step in the inevitable process of delivering those public lands to private ownership.

It’s that simple.

I know transfer supporter Sen. Jennifer Fielder, R-Thompson Falls, introduced a bill that would prevent Montana from selling any of the lands it receives from the Feds. But if Fielder and supporters of the transfer thought Montanans were stupid enough to be duped by that piece of junk legislation, the rally hopefully taught them otherwise.

Gov. Steve Bullock called the bills “gotcha pieces of legislation,” designed to start the state down a road to transfer and privatization that few Montanans actually support.

People who actually pay attention to how the world works recognize this nonsense for what it is. Once the land is transferred to Montana and the state budget is broken by the expense of managing these lands, Fielder, or other anti-public lands crusaders, will be back with another bill allowing the state to sell the land to the highest bidder to fix the budget mess.

And who will be able to write those checks? If you guessed hunters and anglers who presently benefit from living in one of the most public-land rich states in the U.S., guess again.

Fielder is just doing the bidding of folks like the Wilks brothers, now the largest private landowners in Montana, and the American Lands Council, a Utah-based outfit that has been one of the primary drivers of the transfer movement. Utah, unfortunately, has been busy restricting access to public lands during the last decade. In 2010 the state passed a law that significantly limited public access to rivers and streams. Two years later the state passed a public land transfer bill like the one now being considered in Montana.

The similar effort in Montana probably isn’t going anywhere. I’ll be shocked if a bill survives committee, much less merits approval in both chambers to make its way to Bullock’s desk. Such a development might even qualify as a sign of the impending apocalypse. The bill would still face a certain veto from Bullock.

There remains the larger debate about whether the states have the legal right to force a transfer. I rather doubt it, but in the meantime this transfer business has become an enormous distraction. Instead of focusing on issues that would be good for everyone, such as resolving screwed up access conflicts and finding ways to relink the public with large chunks of land in Montana that are off limits because of disputed right-of-ways, folks are rallying in Helena to protest a land transfer that will almost certainly never happen.

The only good that might come out of this is if the energy unleashed in Helena translates into a sustained movement for access rights. Until then, access advocates are playing a rearguard action while the Legislature wastes the public’s time.

A fired up Bullock chastised the Legislature for its obsession with nonsense as he spoke in the rotunda.

“I don’t want Montana to be recognized nationally for a war on yoga pants,” Bullock said. “And I don’t want Montana to be recognized nationally for a half-baked scheme that would endanger our public lands and our economy.”

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