Public Lands in the Swan Valley Belong to Us All

This unprecedented shift in management presents considerable conservation risks

Public lands in the Swan Valley belong to and should be cherished by all Americans, especially those of us living in western Montana. But we won’t be able to enjoy them long if the Lake County Conservation District has its way.

The LCCD is proposing that we transfer multiple-use management authority over 60,000 acres of national public lands to the state for the next 100 years. This may not sound like such a terrible idea at first glance, but in the hands of the state, these lands would be managed for short-term profit only, while wildlife habitat, public access, and outdoor recreation would become an afterthought.

This unprecedented shift in management therefore presents considerable conservation risks, which are bad for wildlife, sportsmen, and the rural communities of Lake County.

Like many, I live in Missoula County but spend a lot of time and money hunting and fishing where these changes would take effect. Swan Lake is a favorite ice fishing destination, and the Flathead National Forest is where I camp and hike in the summer and chase deer and grouse in the fall. These lands are public, and I have just as much right to them as anyone else. Right now, my voice matters in the land-management decisions that affect the best hunting and fishing areas, but if LCCD gains control of these lands, my voice – and anyone else’s living outside of the immediate area – would be silenced.

This is not how public lands should be managed.

The LCCD’s proposal would strip our public lands of any conservation or multiple-use mandates, and replace them with the same rules and regulations that govern state forests. In other words, management decisions would be driven solely by the mighty dollar, and would not require consideration of wildlife habitat, sportsmen’s access, or other traditional uses of the land.

Rural communities depend on the current balanced approach. The valley’s hunting, fishing, and other outdoor recreation opportunities create a year-round public lands playground, one that brings with it significant spending – I should know, since I do plenty of it.

According to the Outdoor Industry Association’s recent report, Americans spend $887 billion on outdoor recreation annually, making this industry larger than the gasoline and fuels industry, and only outpaced by financial services and health care. To ignore and risk this sustainable and significant economic driver for short-term gains, which would likely only benefit a select few, would be shortsighted.

Instead, the LCCD and all local municipalities – as well as the state of Montana –should work collaboratively with the U.S. Forest Service to find innovative, long-term solutions for our forests without undermining responsible public land management or removing the public’s say in the process.

We do have a say, for now. The LCCD is seeking public comment on their proposal. You can send comments via email to swanstudy@gmail.com or by mail to Lake County Conservation District, 64352 Highway 93 Ronan, MT 59864. Before your voice is taken away, I urge you to speak up now.

Scott Laird