It seems that several of our legislators and political leaders are being played for fools regarding the transfer of federal lands to the states. If I were incredibly rich and influential and wanted to own vast amounts of public land without having to share with the masses, here’s how I would go about it. First, cut Forest Service funding to reduce the effectiveness of its management. Also require that the agency absorb all firefighting costs from its management budget. Next, loudly proclaim that federal lands management is inadequate and that the state could provide much better management, despite dramatic differences in management directives, which are maximum profit for state lands and multiple use and sustained yield or benefit and enjoyment of the people for federal lands. Suggest that state management is much more responsive to local needs by providing more timber and better fire protection. Meanwhile, refuse to allocate existing funds for state programs to acquire land for fish, wildlife and recreation purposes, since that would contradict my privatization goal. Then, ignoring dozens of collaborative local efforts that have resulted in workable forest management solutions, advocate for a one-size-fits-all, top-down approach of transferring the federal lands to the states.
What this would accomplish is effectively transferring financial support for land management from about 90.6 million taxpayers in the entire country to only about 620,000 taxpayers in Montana. The financial burden would require the state to dramatically increase timber harvest to generate revenue necessary to meet management costs, since raising taxes would not be an option. Despite previous claims of improved management, sustainable harvest levels would probably soon be exceeded leading to the resource exploitation and damage common in the past. I would even have my flunkies start some catastrophic wildfires to ensure bankruptcy of the state budget and force the ultimate and inevitable sale of public lands to me and my billionaire friends. Of course, there might be a more direct route to facilitate the sale of public lands with a budget amendment in the U.S. Congress. Does any of this sound familiar?
Here are four suggestions for our political leaders. First, recognize that a vast majority of Montana citizens value public lands and want to keep them public. Access to public lands is a vital part of the western heritage. Second, embrace the collaborative local efforts that have developed place-based solutions to land management issues that most people agree upon and that consider existing ecological realities and budgetary constraints. Third, if you really dislike the concept of public land, pack up and move to Texas, where there is little federal land and people can’t hunt or fish unless they can afford private land leases or expensive bass boats. Let the rest of us enjoy continued access to our public lands for hunting, fishing, hiking, camping and other outdoor experiences. Finally, if you are really intent on transferring ownership of federal lands, maybe you should return them to the original owners – the tribes. From what I’ve seen, I much prefer tribal stewardship to profit directed state management.
John Larson lives in Kalispell.