A packed Capitol rotunda Monday played host to hundreds of opponents rallying against the proposed transfer of federal land to state ownership, with speakers blasting the idea as the first step toward privatizing public lands.

Opponents called the transfer movement a political stunt and a waste of resources while about a dozen transfer supporters held up signs and handed out literature saying the state can provide better management. Hosted by television personality Randy Newberg, speakers including Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation President David Allen, former Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation Director Mary Sexton and Gov. Steve Bullock took turns before the vocal crowd. Speakers supported improving federal land management but said that a transfer was not the way to accomplish it.

“There are a lot of issues with federal land management today, but changing ownership is not going to solve those issues,” Allen said. “Don’t give me the answer that ‘States can do it better’ and ask us to buy that. That’s not the answer, it’s a political answer.”

Sponsors such as the Montana Wilderness Association and Montana Wildlife Federation publicized and bussed in transfer opponents for Monday’s rally, with the number of attendees estimated at between 400 and 500.

The public demonstration came as Sen. Jennifer Fielder, R-Thompson Falls, continued to push a transfer agenda. She sponsored a bill last week prohibiting Montana from selling transferred land, and she plans to introduce additional bills preventing the federal government from selling land and calling for a study of the concept. 

Displaying large signs from the Utah-based American Lands Council, transfer supporters called demonstrators hypocritical for opposing Fielder’s bill prohibiting the state's sale of transferred lands.

“We’re here to educate people because a there’s a lot of people spreading misinformation,” said Paul Fielder, the senator’s husband. “It comes down to who can manage land better. We believe people in Montana can.”

With Montana’s small number of congressional representatives and large amount of public land, Montanans are not getting adequate representation for shaping management, Paul Fielder said.

Sen. Fielder was in committee and unavailable for comment.

Speakers hammered the transfer idea for nearly an hour as “half-baked” and driven by out-of-state interests.

Wealthy transfer supporters were “shopping the Montana Legislature,” Newberg said, also declaring that he and the other demonstrators “were not for sale.”

Sexton cited the fiscal responsibility the state would incur under a transfer in her opposition. Firefighting costs in excess of $100 million, loss of federal payments to counties and higher grazing fees for ranchers were just some of the reasons the plan was “pretty crazy,” she said.

Seeley Lake business owner Adrienne Marks and Montana State University student and Conrad native Rebecca Brown noted the importance of public lands to future generations, both economically and culturally.

Fielder’s bills were “gotcha pieces of legislation,” a fiery Bullock said, by setting parameters for a transfer Montanans do not support.

Transfer opponents, including the governor, have long maintained that a transfer would result in an inevitable land sale due to inability to pay for management.

“I have no interest at all in being forced to sell off our heritage in order to manage what’s left over, just like I have no interest in seeing starter castles on the ridge lines of some of our wildest places,” he said.

Time would be better spent working together to hold the federal government accountable for land management, Bullock said.

“Our public lands are not part of the problem; they’re indeed part of the solution. This is jeopardizing what it means to be a Montanan,” he said. “As governor, I will do everything I can to ensure that wholesale transfers of public lands will not occur, not on my watch.”

Reporter Tom Kuglin can be reached at 447-4076 or tom.kuglin@helenair.com

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