Transferring Ownership of America’s Public Lands a Bad Idea

For the good of Big Sky Country, Gianforte should listen to the majority of Montanans

By Bill Cunningham

In a recent interview with Republican gubernatorial candidate Greg Gianforte, the Bozeman Daily Chronicle asked him his position on transferring ownership of American public lands to the state.

Gianforte’s response left me and a lot of other Montanans cold. What will become of our public lands and outdoor way of life should he become our next governor?

“I am opposed to deed transfer at this time,” he said, “because I don’t think it’s attainable [emphasis mine].” Using rhetoric that echoes lands transfer zealot Montana State Sen. Jennifer Fielder, he then ran through a laundry list of complaints about American public lands to support an argument for why he’d rather see these lands managed by the state or some other local entity.

He may never explicitly call for the transfer and sale of our public land. But, Gianforte has, in this interview and elsewhere, established a record that leads me to believe he would, if elected, pursue transferring and selling public lands if the political winds give him the chance to do so.

Consider his selection of a running mate.

When Gianforte introduced Phillips County Commissioner Lesley Robinson, she didn’t explicitly endorse lands transfer, but did express support for more state management. Her background indicates a more extremist position. Robinson is vice-chair of the National Association of Counties Public Lands Steering Committee, which recently listed public land management reform, including “support of the transfer of some federal lands to states,” as one of their top priorities.

In the Chronicle interview, Gianforte veered from lauding state management to supporting a half-baked proposal for projects that would have county commissioners or “some new commission” manage “federally-deeded lands.”

This might sound good to followers of Cliven and Ammon Bundy, but “local management” of American pubic lands is simply an unworkable idea that would put Montana’s taxpayers on the hook for fighting fires on an additional 27 million acres of public lands – at a cost of more than $100 million in dry years. It would also come with many other costs that would, when added up, force the state to sell our public lands to the highest bidder and prioritize resource extraction over public access on the public lands that remained.

Judging by Gianforte’s financial support of the Property and Environment Research Center, this could be what he has in mind. A think-tank backed handsomely by the fossil fuel industry (including the Koch brothers), PERC has a long history of advocating for the privatization and industrialization of public lands, going so far as to offer “a blueprint for auctioning off all public lands over 20 to 40 years.”

For the good of Big Sky Country, Gianforte should listen to the majority of Montanans – nearly 60 percent, according to a recently Colorado College poll – who oppose the idea of transferring American public lands to individual states. He should also consider that public lands in Montana generate $6 billion annually, including $403 million in tax revenue, and account for 64,000 jobs across the state. More importantly, public lands provide the outdoor way of life that defines who we are as Montanans.

The Republican Party of Montana, which passed a resolution in 2014 to “support granting federally managed public lands to the states,” would also do well to remember what public lands mean to Montanans.

This year, let’s make sure we elect candidates who honor, and will unequivocally support retention of our public lands and the gifts they provide. After all, our American lands are the birthright of every American, and nowhere is this proud heritage stronger than in Montana.

Bill Cunningham

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