Trust Us

Millions of people visit Montana each year hungry to experience our public places

By Mike Jopek

All five of Montana’s top-elected officials are up this year. Those elected perform multiple duties throughout their four-year terms.

The governor, attorney general, superintendent of public instruction, auditor, and secretary of state are at times all at the capitol during our 90-day biannual legislative session. They each help pass laws like our balanced state budget.

The governor appoints with the consent of the Senate, directors for departments like environmental quality, revenue, agriculture, health and human services, natural resources, wildlife and parks, or corrections.

The attorney general manages the highway patrol and department of justice. The superintendent of public instruction oversees over 800 public schools and more than 140,000 students statewide. The secretary of state administers elections, voter rolls and business services. The auditor is the commissioner of all matters insurance and securities.

According to our Montana Constitution, each of these five officials comprise one seat of the Board of Land Commissioners. It has the authority to direct, control, exchange, and sell the state public lands across Montana. That’s over 5 million acres of land for agriculture, grazing, timber, coal, mining, gas and oil, cabin sites, and uses like commercial development, conservation or recreation.

Most of these public lands are used for agriculture, grazing, and timber. It’s a steady income source, some which helps fund our public schools. Newer income is from commercial development like on Section 36 in Kalispell where Lowes and Costco are built. They pay annual fees to use trust lands. It’s a significant public trust moneymaker in urban areas like Missoula and Bozeman.

In places like Whitefish, conservation and recreation on state trust lands has generated millions of new dollars for education. It’s now just another market-based income generator for a trust, managed by the land commissioners.

In the 2005 and 2007 Montana Legislatures, many people helped gain the right to purchase development off state public lands in places like the Whitefish watershed for market value.

My fellow members in the 2005 and 2007 Legislature, Elsie Artnzen and Corey Stapleton, voted to not allow the market-based sale of conservation easements on state public lands, in both sessions. Neither Artnzen nor Stapleton agreed that the land commissioners should be unanimous on public land sales, and neither supported an interim study for conservation easements on state lands.

Artnzen is now running for a seat as a land commissioner as the next superintendent of public instruction while Stapleton seeks a seat as secretary of state.

Sen. Matt Rosendale seeks another land commissioner seat as state auditor. His past statewide campaign proposed transferring federal public lands inside Montana to state ownership. None of the national anti-public lands rhetoric comforts Montanans who loves our great outdoors, particularly when coupled with a state Republican Party platform that supports the granting of federally managed public lands to the state with a transition plan for the timely and orderly transfer.

The GOP platform further says they oppose publicly funded subsidies for conservation easements. Recently, those kind of federal funds partially paid for the 3,000 acres of watershed protection on the foothills of Whitefish.

Republicans want to control the five top-elected seats in Montana and control the Board of Land Commissioners like they currently control the state Legislature. They’ve put forward strong candidates, many with the ability to self-fund campaigns. There’s a likelihood some or many win.

Millions of people visit Montana each year hungry to experience our public places. Yet for locals our public lands are simply a part of our way of life, of who we are and why we live here.

Still, some just ideologically oppose conservation.

Democrats and Republicans hoping to be next year’s land commissioners should release their plans on how best to manage our state public lands.

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