Lawmakers Turn Away from Issue of Federal Land Transfer

Republican Sen. Jennifer Fielder spearheaded the effort to study and diminish federal land management

By ALISON NOON, Associated Press

HELENA — In the wake of allegations against the American Lands Council, the state legislative panel that embraced its ideas last session has fallen silent on public land jurisdiction.

Montana’s Environmental Quality Council in 2013 found an “urgent need to correct the way federal public lands are managed.” But newly elected chairman Sen. Gene Vuckovich said the committee has no plans to revisit the subject after subsequent legislative proposals failed this year and he, personally, would not like it on the agenda.

The Anaconda Democrat was on the panel last session, when Republican Sen. Jennifer Fielder spearheaded the effort to study and diminish federal land management.

The committee’s change in heart coincides with Fielder’s absence from it. She is a member of four other interim committees and said she didn’t fight to get on the environmental one this year.

“I hope that they’ll bring something forward that’ll help to improve management on public lands, but if that’s not a priority of the chairman, it’s probably not going to happen,” Fielder, of Thompson Falls, said.

Fielder introduced 20 of about three dozen bills this year aimed at increasing state management of federally owned lands. Hundreds rallied against the proposals in February and the bills were largely shut down. One bill requiring the state to seek reimbursement of money owed to Montana from public lands proceeds became law without the signature of Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock.

“Democrats don’t want to allow that discussion to occur, unfortunately,” Fielder said. “I think eventually they’ll realize it’s a really great idea and a benefit to our state, but they’re not there yet.”

American Lands Council President Ken Ivory participated in the Montana committee’s discussion last session. His organization, which pushes for western states to take control of federal public lands, came under fire this week when a watchdog group asked attorneys general in Montana, Utah and Arizona to investigate the council for allegedly pedaling fiction for financial gain.

“There are environmental organizations that have legitimate concerns about what the real agenda is here,” said Anne Weismann, executive director of Campaign for Accountability, the group that brought the complaint.

Ivory has denied any wrongdoing, calling the claim “desperate bullying.”

Montana Department of Justice spokesman John Barnes said Attorney General Tim Fox is reviewing the complaint.