Key Players on the Landscape

Who’s for and who’s against the transfer or sale of public lands?

By Tristan Scott
Gov. Steve Bullock fires up the crowd at the public lands rally at the Montana State Capitol on Jan. 30, 2017. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Sen. Jennifer Fielder

The Republican state senator from Sanders County is a leading advocate for the transfer of federal lands, and this legislative session has sponsored two resolutions: one to study the logistics of federal land conveyance, while the other requests conveyance of all federal land in Montana.

Fielder has been an outspoken proponent of transferring federal lands to states, and last year became CEO of the Utah-based American Lands Council, the chief organization at the forefront of efforts to promote land transfers across the West.

Fielder and other proponents say Montana residents are better poised to manage their lands than Washington bureaucrats, and that the federal agencies have been struggling for decades to effectively manage lands against litigation and plodding analysis procedures.

“The idea is that it would be Montanans making the decisions more quickly,” Fielder said of a transfer. “We are past the point of this being an emergency.”

Critics counter that the transfer would be an unreasonably heavy burden for the state to shoulder — an expensive millstone that would cost untold millions of dollars while jeopardizing access to public lands, which repeated surveys show are important to the majority of Montana residents.

Ryan Zinke

The Republican congressman from Whitefish, who is poised for confirmation as Secretary of the Interior under the Trump Administration, has stated unequivocally that he opposes the transfer or sale of public lands.

But critics are concerned that his actions may depart from his rhetoric.

At his Jan. 17 confirmation hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, the Republican responded to a question from Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington by saying, “I am absolutely against transfer or sale of public lands. I can’t be more clear.”

Earlier in the month, however, Zinke voted to overturn a House rule requiring Congress to calculate the value of federal land before transferring it to states or other entities, removing a significant barrier to limit lawmakers from ceding federal control of public lands.

The rule was introduced by Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, who is among the staunchest advocates for transferring federal lands to the states.

Zinke called the vote a “shot across the bow,” and told committee members at his confirmation hearing that he would have opposed the rule change had it not been attached to a much larger package, which passed by a vote of 233 to 190.

Still, the vote drew the ire of conservation groups, sportsmen and Democrats who pledged to hold Zinke accountable in his new role at the helm of the nation’s federal lands and natural resources.

Gov. Steve Bullock

Settling in to his second term as governor, the Montana Democrat delivered an impassioned speech at the Jan. 30 “Public Lands in Public Hands” rally in Helena, where more than 1,000 people gathered in the Capitol rotunda.

Bullock highlighted the benefit of public lands to Montana’s outdoor recreation economy, which supports 64,000 Montana jobs and nearly $6 billion in economic activity.

“The national political winds change direction every few years, but a passion for the outdoors and strong support for American public lands remain constant in the Mountain West,” Bullock said. “Public lands drive our economy and define our way of life in Montana and in surrounding states. We have too much to lose if we allow these national treasures to be put at risk.”

In light of Bullock’s renewed support for public lands, it’s unlikely that a bill to privatize them will emerge from the Legislature and escape his veto pen.

Outdoors Industry

Conrad Anker, the famous mountaineer and Bozeman resident who is the leader of The North Face climbing team, is a powerful voice representing not only mountain-sport culture and ethics, but also the outdoor industry.

At the Helena rally, Anker joined K.C. Walsh, CEO of the Bozeman-based Simms fishing company, and fly-fishing guide and Trout TV host Hilary Hutcheson, of Columbia Falls, to advocate on behalf of public lands.

Paraphrasing Duwamish Chief Seattle, who famously said land is not inherited from ancestors but borrowed from future generations, Anker said public lands are a great unifier available to all.

Meanwhile, the founders of Patagonia and Black Diamond Equipment pushed back against legislators in Utah, denouncing their support for the sale of public land and calling its preservation critical to the outdoor industry.

In an open letter, Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard and Black Diamond founder Peter Metcalf urged Republican Utah Gov. Gary Herbert to protect public lands, and threatened to move the semi-annual Outdoor Retailer Winter and Summer Market trade show out of state if he does not — a show that grosses $40 million in revenue for Utah’s economy twice each year.

On Feb. 7, Patagonia announced it will not be participating in Outdoor Retailer in response to Herbert’s move to revoke the Bears Ears National Monument last week. (The Bears Ears National Monument was established by former President Barack Obama in the last few days of his presidency.)

Montana Wood Products Association

In a policy statement from its board of directors, the state’s major voice for the wood products industry opposes the transfer of federal lands to state control while acknowledging the need for federal forest reform.

“Even though we are intimately aware and are directly affected by the decline in resource management within our borders, we do not — at this time — support the movement to transfer federal lands to the state of Montana for either ownership or management responsibilities,” according to the statement. “Such an action would not only catapult the timber industry back into the ‘timber wars’ of past decades, but it also does not address or resolve the root of the problems we are currently facing with litigation and over-regulatory policies. Regardless of who holds the deeds to the land, we must first address, change, and fix the hurdles to active management.”

Hook and Bullet

In addition to conservation groups, proposals to transfer federal lands to states’ control have been sharply criticized by sportsmen groups and businesses.

On Feb. 2, following pressure from Backcountry Hunters and Anglers and numerous other groups, U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, announced his decision to abandon legislation that would have mandated the sale of more than 3 million acres of public lands in Utah, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, and Wyoming.

Backcountry Hunters and Anglers President Land Tawney attributed the lawmaker’s decision to kill the proposed bill to “the instant and overwhelming response by sportsmen and women.”

“His fellow lawmakers should take note of the ire and rapid response by hunters and anglers,” Tawney said. “We aren’t going away.”