Extreme Views Don’t Represent Most Montanans on Public Lands

This month’s election result further validates what the polls have been telling us for years

By Greg Zimmerman

In her recent op-ed, Montana state Sen. Jennifer Fielder continued to perpetuate phony myths about American public lands in an attempt to prop up her naive attempts to dispose of them.

According to Sen. Fielder, Montana’s public lands are a trash dump, filled with pests and fenced off to the public. In her telling, the only thing that can save our public lands is for them to be given to the state.

Don’t tell that to the hundreds of thousands of Montanans streaming across the state’s public lands to hunt and fish, who certainly aren’t buying Sen. Fielder’s premise. On the contrary, public opinion research shows unequivocally that Montana voters value national public lands. And poll after poll shows that Montanans – like voters across the West – have little appetite for her misguided plans to “transfer” American lands to state or private interests.

This month’s election result further validates what the polls have been telling us for years.   

Gov. Steve Bullock, a strong advocate for American public lands, won re-election in a difficult political environment for Democrats in Montana on a pro-access and anti-seizure message. Congressman Ryan Zinke, who just won a second term to the United States Congress, is a fierce opponent of efforts to “transfer” public lands to Montana.

And President-elect Donald Trump has strongly disavowed Sen. Fielder’s plans to hand national forests and other public lands over to the states. When asked by a reporter earlier this year about efforts to “transfer” public lands to the states, the President-elect responded, “I don’t like the idea because I want to keep the lands great, and you don’t know what the state is going to do. I mean, are they going to sell if they get into a little bit of trouble? And I don’t think it’s something that should be sold.”

He is exactly right. Montana, which is required to balance its budget each year, would not be able to afford the costs and liabilities of taking on millions of acres of public lands. What would happen when one bad wildfire burns across Montana’s forests? Where would the money to pay for suppression and reclamation costs come from?

The cold hard reality, which Sen. Fielder consistently ignores, is that the money would have to come from somewhere. There are few but no good options for paying management costs; they include raising taxes on Montana workers, raiding other areas of the state budget, like education and law enforcement, and privatizing Montana’s public lands.

Even though Sen. Fielder falls far outside mainstream thought in Montana, she continues to have influence in some segments of Montana politics. She is currently the vice-chair of Montana’s Republican Party and the CEO of the pro-land seizure American Lands Council. You can expect Sen. Fielder to team up with the small number of other anti-public land crusaders in Montana and across West to continue pushing their shortsighted and costly policy ideas.

But worry not, as sportsmen, conservationists, good government groups, and concerned citizens across the West will be standing side-by-side to close the doors on any attempt to dispose of national public lands in state and private hands. And while we may never rid our Western state legislatures of so-called sagebrush rebels entirely, I remain as confident as ever that Sen. Fielder and her political friends will remain on the wrong side of history.

Greg Zimmerman is deputy director at Center for Western Priorities.

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