We are longtime residents of the Seeley/Swan Valley who attended the Sept. 20 Swan Valley Community Council-sponsored presentation by Montana Sen. Jennifer Fielder and Rep. Kerry White of the American Lands Council (ALC). The ALC presentation was filled with misinformation, inaccurate graphics, and emotionally charged rhetoric designed to create fear. In their proposal to transfer federal lands to state control, the ALC speakers oversimplified and misrepresented complex forest management issues, while ignoring us hikers, hunters, anglers and other local citizens who value and cherish our public lands.
Fielder and White claim that the transfer of 17,151,047 acres of U.S. Forest Service (USFS) lands to state ownership would not present an undue financial burden on Montana taxpayers, yet offer few details of how the state will manage these lands. They contend the states can afford to manage federal lands. The USFS has a multiple use mandate to manage for soil, water, wildlife habitat, recreation, timber and grazing, etc. State school trust lands have a single mandate, which is to generate revenue for schools and other institutions.
If federal public lands were managed as state school trust lands, many of the activities the public enjoys would be lost or supported by fees. In Montana, $2 from every conservation license is paid to the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) to allow public hunting and fishing on state school trust lands. If Montana were to acquire the national forest lands and had to generate additional funds to manage them, the hunter access fee would likely be increased.
Many of the same activities we enjoy on our federal public lands would require the purchase of a special permit if the lands transfer to Montana as school trust land. Montanans must purchase a State Recreational Use Permit to hike, ski, sightsee, and day horseback ride on state school trust lands managed by the DNRC. Separate authorization from DNRC is required for overnight horseback use, trapping, outfitting, group use, cutting or gathering of firewood, collecting valuable rocks and minerals, mineral exploration, collection or disturbance of archaeological, historical, or paleontological sites. These permits range from $5 to $20. Do we really want our public lands to be managed in this manner?
Fielder and White implied that more access would be provided if the states took over management of the national forests. While access is an important issue for hunters, the greatest problem is private lands legally blocking access to public lands, or private landowners not allowing public hunters on their property and thus creating wildlife “harboring” issues.
The stewardship issues of the 21st century are complicated, due to economic and climate conditions. For instance, forest health and therefore fire is not as simple as harvest the trees or burn the trees as the ALC implied. The full effects of a warming climate on forest health are still unknown, but reduced annual snowfall, earlier spring run off, and longer summers are already affecting wildfire. The USFS faces a broad range of timber management challenges, including the insect epidemics, inappropriate past fire suppression, and the need for controlled burns to reduce risk. The price of timber, which is not stable, also affects jobs, due to local and global market influences. We are lucky to still have a timber mill in our valley. Land managers do not control international trade, which influences the price of commodities and employment. Assuming the USFS, or any land management agency, is somehow to blame for these global political challenges is a gross misunderstanding. To blame our social ills on organizations like the Montana Wilderness Association, Montana Wildlife Federation, Audubon Society, and Backcountry Hunters and Anglers is ludicrous.
Fielder and White claim our system is broken and the way to fix it is to take federal lands away from all of us and give them to the state of Montana. Yet if Montana is unable to produce enough revenue off these transferred lands, they will be put up for sale, leading to privatization of our last, best places and threatening the conservation ideals that President Teddy Roosevelt made popular more than 100 years ago. Roosevelt’s creation of the USFS in 1905 was criticized by the land barons at the time, but it’s why we have free access to hunt, hike, fish, bike, ride horseback, climb and camp on millions of acres of national forests today. All types of outdoor recreation generate income in our valley year-round. The loss of federal lands would reduce opportunities for Montanans and many others who recreate here. Visitors support businesses and jobs that generate local income to help stabilize the timber economy.
We Montanans have a shared responsibility to protect our natural world and to pass on to future generations the beauty, wildlife, water and natural resources we have today.