Rep. Ryan Zinke

Rep. Ryan Zinke speaks at the Trump rally in Billings opn Thursday.

BOB ZELLAR, for the Independent Record

Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Mont., is taking heat from public land and access groups following a vote to potentially transfer management of millions of federal acres to local advisory committees.

The same day he touted his vote with Democrats against an Alaska representative’s land transfer bill, groups including The Wilderness Society, Montana Wilderness Association and Public Land and Water Access Association painted Montana’s lone congressman as waffling on his opposition to federal land transfer and privatization.

Zinke voted in favor of the Self-Sufficient Community Lands Act, legislation allowing “demonstration areas” made up of national forests with governor-appointed advisory committees steering management under state and private forestry regulations. Demonstration areas up to 4 million acres total could be designated at the behest of the committees.

The act, which passed committee 25-13 Wednesday, aims to generate local economic activity in communities dependent on national forests.

The vote flies counter to Zinke’s self-description in an April op-ed as a “Teddy Roosevelt conservationist,” providing a path to privatizing forests by stripping federal authority, wrote MWA conservation director John Todd for his organization’s blog.

“This would undermine bedrock environmental laws, including the Clean Water and Clean Air acts, and give extractive industry exclusive control of our national forests,” he wrote. “This unprecedented approach to transferring and industrializing public lands would lead to the loss of clean water, wildlife habitat, and recreational use of public lands that are owned by all Americans.”

Zinke through a spokeswoman rebuffed the notion that he flip-flopped, saying he has always supported more say from local communities in forest management while not supporting transfer of ownership. She pointed to his vote Wednesday against Alaska Rep. Don Young’s State National Forest Management Act of 2015, a bill authorizing states to acquire certain federal forest lands for timber production.

Young’s bill passed committee 23-15.

“The fact is, (the Self-Sufficient Community Lands Act) focuses on engaging communities and specifically restricts any policy that would limit or diminish access for hunters, anglers, and other recreationists, which is one of Zinke’s top priorities,” communication’s director Heather Swift said in an email. “The environmental groups are pushing an extreme agenda to simply shut down any process that includes anybody’s opinion but their own. A perfect example of this is the frivolous lawsuits waged against forestry collaboratives.”

Both TWS and MWA faulted the legislation as overly favoring extractive industries. But while specifically pointing to mandates for forestry, grazing and county officials on the advisory committees, the organizations did not mention the requirement for recreation members in their initial criticism.

Omitting mention of the recreation members was not intentional, both groups said, and did not take away from their opposition of a woefully bad bill.

“Having one of the four governor-appointed committee members be a recreation person doesn't change the key point which is that these committees would have tremendous authority, with no real public involvement and exclusion from most federal environmental laws, in managing the selected forest demonstration areas,” said Peter Aengst, TWS senior regional director.

“Given the make-up of the committee, the stated purpose of the legislation, and comments from the Natural Resources committee, it is clear that this legislation is intended as an end run around federal environmental review, broad public participation in land management, and the multiple-use mandate that protects recreation and conservation values on our American public lands,” MWA spokesman Ted Brewer said in an email.

Swift countered that the bill gives states flexibility in deciding management, and that management could include deciding against logging or mining.

“(TWS and MWA) selectively omitted that the advisory panels set up by state governors would include recreational members, which are often synonymous with conservation advocates,” she said. “And, using their logic, these advisory panels could decide to make the 200,000 acres area wilderness. Would the conservation groups oppose this?”

Balance between forest users would be maintained through collaboration, Swift said.

The management controlling collaboration directed under the legislation is much different than that supported by conservation groups, Brewer said.

“Our brand of collaboration is about influencing federal management of American public land by balancing and elevating diverse points of view. This bill is about state-appointed committees taking over management of American public lands to prioritize extractive use,” he said.

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

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Natural Resources Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter / Assistant Editor for The Independent Record.

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