The violent capture of the leaders of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge occupation in Oregon two weeks ago and the continued siege of the federal refuge by four armed militants is an ill-conceived move to draw national attention to an issue that has plagued Montanans and other Westerners for the past four decades. Unfortunately the sentiments that led to the occupation and the heated discourse that fueled it continue to persist.

The demands that the federal government give over its land to the states is a movement that has roots back to the early 1900s when the federal government first began setting aside large swaths of land in the West for the public use and wildlife habitat protection. The Sagebrush Rebellion gained steam in the 1970s and ’80s after key pieces of environmental legislation passed Congress, including the Endangered Species Act, the National Environmental Policy Act and the Clean Water Act.

The sentiment fueling the uprising then has not died away: “How can the federal government know what is best for the land and the communities who depend on them?”

We’ve written this before and repeat it again here: The vast public lands in the West are one of America’s best ideas and valued treasures. There was a time at the turn of the 20th century when presidents were tripping over each other to establish the forest reserves, which would eventually become the national forests we know today. The designation of Western federal lands began an important discussion about how they should be managed. Today that discussion involves landowners, local governments and a wide variety of interest groups.

The conversation must be open, honest and free. Our society can’t afford for this debate to be hijacked by radicals, like those who took over the Oregon federal wildlife refuge.

As the statewide political races begin to shape up, discussion about natural resource development and federal land management will be a focal point. We hope these conversations focus on ways to improve the system, not dismantle it.

But voters should know that even though public sentiment around the state seems to strongly support federal lands staying under the ownership of the federal government, interest groups will be pushing hard to get those lands transferred to state ownership. Leading the charge will be the American Lands Council and its leader, Sen. Jennifer Fielder, R-Thompson Falls.

Fielder represents the constituents who elected her to office in Senate District 7. She also represents the interests of the ALC and has sponsored legislation in the past promoting the federal land transfer.

With a citizen legislature, not one comprised of professional politicians, lawmakers come to Helena with varied interests. Our Legislature consists of many people who serve not only their constituents, but often their industries and personal causes as well. Hopefully, these interests are well-known to the voters who send them to Helena.

In this respect Fielder is no different. What may be different here is the ideas she promotes as a legislator and as the head of ALC are incredibly unpopular with the majority of Montanans who value their public lands and the legacy they have in Montana -- a state known for its breathtaking beauty, abundant fish and wildlife habitat and ample recreational opportunities. We are suspicious of people and organizations who see these lands as simply an opportunity to expand the state economy. These lands are already the economic engine of our state -- just ask the software developer in Bozeman, or the doctor in Helena or the restaurateur in Kalispell. They live here and make their living here because of the tremendous access to our public lands and the resources those lands offer.

And it doesn’t matter who is making the argument: transferring these lands to state ownership will cost taxpayers far too much money, and the only way out will be to sell the most valuable pieces to private owners. Federal ownership prevents this.

So again, let’s focus our discussion on ways to improve management of federal lands. Let’s push lawmakers in Washington, D.C., to pass legislation and funding to better address the needs of communities who depend on these lands for recreation and commerce. But let’s not waste any more time on figuring out how to take them out of public hands.


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