Officials from four western states testified about efforts to transfer federal lands to state ownership before a legislative working group exploring the same issue in Montana.
The Environmental Quality Council’s SJ-15 working group heard from state senators in Wyoming and Idaho, a state representative from Utah and a Nevada county commissioner during Wednesday’s council meeting at the Capitol. The working group is tasked with evaluating federal land management in Montana, and how to best manage public lands for the benefit of the state. As part of that evaluation, the working group has taken up exploring the transfer of federal lands to state ownership, which has gained traction most notably in Utah.
The EQC is chaired and appointed by Sen. John Brenden of Scobey. The council advises the Legislature and state agencies on environmental policy.
Wyoming state Sen. Eli Bebout, who chairs that state’s Federal Natural Resource Management Committee, told the working group that his constituents are very concerned with the overreach of the federal government. Bebout specifically took aim at the Environmental Protection Agency, which makes decisions through rule making and regulations and not through a congressional process.
Brenden told Bebout that Montana shared the same concerns over EPA overreach, and took his own shot at the agency.
“It sounds like we have a lot in common,” Brenden said. “Talking about the EPA, in one example, we’ve been fighting the Clean Water Act, which is a takings in my mind of property owners and ranchers.”
The EQC then heard testimony from Sen. Chuck Winder of Idaho, who chairs the Federal Lands Interim Committee in that state. Winder told the working group that officials in Idaho consulted with its attorney general on the transfer of federal lands to state ownership. The attorney general told the officials that a takeover of lands via the courts did not have merit. Not to be discouraged, Idaho hired private legal counsel to continue exploring a legal avenue, but also wants to explore a political remedy as well, he said.
People in Idaho are not satisfied with the management of their federal lands, and cumbersome regulations make using those lands for grazing, timber or mineral development almost impossible, Winder said.
“People know management of federal lands in our state is broken,” he said. “The feds control 90 percent of lands in some counties. We have no tax base to support our schools. We used to have mining and logging, but those have gone away.”
Idaho has gained traction working with local officials from the federal government, but those officials are then overruled by higher-ups in Washington, D.C., Winder said. Idaho plans to continue to gather information on their options for influencing federal activity in the state.
Utah has done the most work on the transfer of federal lands, and Rep. Keven Stratton of that state told the EQC that, if successful, Utah plans to keep those lands public. Utah passed a bill inviting the federal government to turn over lands to the state. The federal government has not yet agreed.
“These lands have a better chance of being taken care of by the state of Utah than the federal level,” Stratton said. “Public lands are in safer hands in a very well managed state than in the hands of federal stewards with the challenges they face.”
Even if the lands were transferred, Utah realizes that many of the regulations under the EPA and Endangered Species Act would still apply, Stratton said, and Utah is performing an economic analysis of a takeover.
Nevada has performed an economic analysis of the takeover of federal lands, and the outcome would be good for the state and counties, said Elko County commissioner Demar Dahl.
Nevada convened a committee of county commissioners to study the transfer of public lands. When they first met, the group was split down the middle for and against. After hiring a firm to analyze the economic impact, everyone on the committee voted in favor, Dahl said.
According to the study, net revenue to the state would be $334 million from management, he said.
The public had the chance to weigh in on all they heard during Wednesday’s testimony.
Speaking on behalf of timber harvesters in Mineral County, Josef Kuchern said that they would support a land transfer to Montana, and encouraged the working group to push for more timber harvest.
Other commenters spoke to the legality of transferring lands, and encouraged the working group to use caution.
“If you’re going to do this (pursue land transfer) you need to study the economic feasibility, which in my opinion is throwing money down a rat hole,” said Jim Davis. “A better solution is for the Legislature to put pressure on those agencies, make those agencies work more closely with local government agencies.”
“Sen. Orin Hatch went to the Utah Legislature and told them they’re not going to win,” said Nick Gevock of the Montana Wildlife Federation. “We agree that we need better forest management, but instead of pushing for this we need collaboration.”