Like many proposals that have been brought to the majority Republican Legislature this session, the water compact between the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and the state of Montana is an all-or-nothing proposal filled with landmines.
What we do in Helena as your representatives is hear proposals and amend them when the majority sees fit so that they can be applicable for the entire state of Montana. But proponents of SB 262, the bill that would ratify the CSKT water compact, threaten that we aren’t allowed to question or amend the proposal. It’s all or nothing – and I think we are better off with nothing.
For example, throughout the compact there is language that the U.S. Forest Service and Montana Fish and Game have written in to exempt themselves from future conflicts. These groups are supporting the agreement but they’re exempting themselves from the future conflicts that they see coming. Seems suspicious. They must see some pretty big conflicts coming down the road if they went out of their way to preemptively exempt themselves.
The main concern for many Montanans is the possibility of losing access to private property. Tribal members on reservations already have access rights under case law. This compact changes the law to say that tribal members, their heirs and “assigns” will have access. This definition is so all-encompassing that the CSKT will be allowed to hand over access to outdoor groups or tour companies. Private land that is currently protected by law would basically lose all meaning if a private company or group has legal access to your land.
If passed, this agreement would create the Unitary Management Ordinance, a water court made up of a conglomeration of tribal members and others who would serve as the water court for the reservation. The issue is that this newly established court would rule on issues involving non-tribal members, essentially taking Montana citizens’ rights away from state law and putting the decisions in the hands of the tribes. Ninety percent of the agriculture land on reservations in Montana is not owned by tribal members and is not reservation land. People living there for generations have been paying property taxes on the land but would be losing some of the private property rights they have held for so long. A solution shouldn’t include taking away the rights of our citizens.
The interim committee worked hard to fix the proposal that was brought last session and I commend them for their work. However, this is still not a good deal for the majority of Montanans. Like so many proposals coming from the other side of the aisle over the last three months, we are supposed to take this or leave it. There is no opportunity to amend. The compact is 68 pages long, with over 1,000 pages of appendices, and was introduced late in the legislative process so that most legislators wouldn’t have time to read it. If the Legislature’s choice is this compact or nothing, I think we are better off with nothing.
Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, is the Montana House majority leader.
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