Committee tables resolution opposing federal land transfer

February 23, 2017

HELENA — A state Senate committee on Wednesday heard and quickly voted to table a resolution opposing the transfer of federal lands to the state of Montana.

Debate over Senate Joint Resolution 17 opposing federal land transfer and sales brought a familiar narrative, generating support from conservation groups, and some farming and timber interests, but also a challenge from Montana’s top land transfer proponent.

Sen. Diane Sands, D-Missoula, brought SJ17 before the Senate Natural Resources Committee. The resolution, which by nature is a nonbinding position statement rather than a law, noted the values of public lands to Montana economically and recreationally. The resolution opposes efforts to transfer federal lands to state ownership or sell them into private hands.

“All of us own these public lands, and the beauty is you don’t need permission to go on them,” Sands told the committee.

A series of “Whereas” statements detail the ecological, cultural and economic benefits from recreation, tourism, timber and agriculture on federal public lands in Montana. If passed, the Legislature would resolve to oppose “any effort to claim, take over, litigate for, or sell off federal lands within the State of Montana.”

Transferring federal lands to states has become a contentious political topic in recent years.

Supporters have looked to legislation and litigation arguing states would benefit financially through natural resource production and the lands would be better managed.

Opponents counter that state ownership is a path to privatization by burdening states with management costs including firefighting. Many opposed also emphasize the national ownership of federal lands as belonging to all Americans.

Wednesday’s hearing came less than a month after more than 1,000 public land advocates rallied in the Capitol rotunda to denounce federal land transfers and sales.

Sands and some supporters pointed to recent developments in Utah, which saw a major sports show pull out of that state in response to political pushes to take ownership of federal lands and roll back some land protections designated through national monuments.

“You’re starting to see pushback throughout the West and people saying they’ve had enough of it,” Nick Gevock with the Montana Wildlife Federation said of the land-transfer movement.

Montanans Elise Strong, Allison Dale-Riddle and Stacy Anderson spoke personally about their ties to public lands and how outdoor experiences shaped their lives.

“Public lands are at the cornerstone of Montanan’s heritage and values,” Laurel Hesse told the committee.

Eric Bergman with the Montana Farmers Union supported the resolution, arguing that Montana could not afford management, and Julia Altemus with the Montana Wood Products Association voiced support, but emphasized her organization’s push for better management on federal lands.

Gevock, Altemus and the resolution’s lone opponent, Alan Olson with the Montana Petroleum Association, took issue with language opposing “any” transfer or sale.

Publicly owned lands have been sold or transferred on smaller scales, often to consolidate ownership, but also for a variety of other reasons. Opposition has largely focused on transfers that could potentially take millions of acres out of federal ownership, while support has been mixed on smaller, case-by-case transfers.

Sands drew a series of questions from Sen. Jennifer Fielder, R-Thompson Falls, perhaps the leading proponent of land transfers in the West. Fielder leads the American Lands Council, the chief organization advocating for land transfers.

Fielder said she joins in support of public lands, but believes states would simply do a better job managing them. She pointed to about 6 million acres of state lands, the majority of which were received through transfer, and the revenue they produce for schools and other public goods.

“Do you think the state is doing a horrible job?” of management, she asked Sands.

Sands replied that financing additional acreage would prove difficult.

Fielder continued to question the Missoula Democrat, calling the notion of selloffs “false” and asking Sands to concede that the debate truly centered on who would better manage the lands. Fielder also asked pointed questions about the fairness of the quantity of federal ownership in Montana compared to other states, and whether management from Washington, D.C., and policies driven by elected officials from other states was the best approach.

Sands voiced her support of representative government as a means to push and debate policy. While she was concerned about sales, she said, Montanans are very vocal on issues that affect them through the public process.

“I perhaps have a little more faith in the process than you do, senator,” Sands said to Fielder.

During executive action, Sen. Mike Phillips, D-Bozeman, while acknowledging Fielder’s point that the management issue is not a simple one, voiced support for passing the resolution.

Before moving to table SJ17, Fielder took issue with the resolution’s characterization of Indian reservations and called the bill “very imbalanced.” She was disappointed, she said, by the black-and-white nature of the resolution and said finding real solutions need a more balanced discussion.

All seven Republicans voted to table, while all five Democrats were opposed.

A similar resolution opposing federal land transfer also died in committee in 2015.