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Here in Montana, the holidays are a time to spend with family, recreate on our public lands, and reflect on the year. My family ice fishes, enjoys elk backstraps for Christmas dinner, and opens presents nestled under our tree plucked from U.S. Forest Service lands. None of these traditions would exist without access to our public lands.

And this holiday season, recent natural resource policy decisions and proposals with major implications for the Big Sky State left Montana sportsmen and women feeling like Christmas came early. 

In my own backyard, the Missoula County commissioners recently joined Anaconda-Deer Lodge and made a preemptive statement on the importance of federally managed public lands. This isn’t in response to any immediate threat; instead, they wanted to send the message to any lurking land transfer advocates: Missoula County will keep it public.

In Helena, Governor Bullock just signed Republican Rep. Alan Doane’s House Bill 597, which serves to unlock some of the nearly 2 million acres of currently inaccessible public lands in Montana. The new plan, the Montana Public Land Access Network, is the first of its kind in any state. It allows the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation to purchase access easements from willing, voluntary sellers. Thanks to keystone funding provided by the Rocky Mountain Elk Funding, Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, Montana Wildlife Federation and other conservation groups, the plan is now a reality – and exactly the forward-thinking initiative that Montana needs.

Meanwhile, in D.C., Rep. Gianforte recently introduced the Yellowstone Gateway Protection Act (H.R. 4644), a bill that mirrors a Senate version previously introduced by Sen. Tester earlier this year. If passed, the legislation would prevent 30,000 acres of public land north of Yellowstone from being mined, something Montanans have supported for years.

On the other side of the Capitol Hill, Sen. Tester has stepped up for sportsmen with a commitment to tackle the deeply concerning issue of chronic wasting disease in our wild deer and elk herds. This was the first year that CWD was found in Montana’s wild deer herds, so the issue is really hitting home now. The time to fund research and proactive solutions to combat the disease is now, and we should applaud Sen. Tester for taking the lead on this.

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Sen. Tester also recently cosponsored a bill aimed at streamlining recreation access and permitting on public lands. The Recreation Not Red-Tape Act, among other improvements, would instruct state and federal land management agencies to offer joint permits valid on both tracts of public lands.

And finally, Sen. Daines recently cosponsored a bill to reauthorize and expand the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program, “Open Fields,” which rewards landowners who open their gates to hunters and anglers. At a time when hunters and anglers list public access as the No. 1 hurdle to hunting and fishing, opening as much land as possible should be a priority.

Speaking of access, the Land and Water Conservation Fund is one of the most important programs for Montanans, providing public access, conserving wildlife habitat, providing recreation opportunities in local communities and creating management efficiencies. Unfortunately, the program is set to expire in 2018. Sens. Tester and Daines have been champions of LWCF legislation in prior years, but we are counting on all three members of Montana’s congressional delegation to step up for sportsmen and women by supporting and advancing permanent reauthorization for this vital program in the new year.

As we reflect on these recent wins and advances for conservation and public lands in Montana, it’s important that we offer credit where credit is due. Equally necessary, we also must continue to hold our elected officials accountable when their actions deserve criticism. As we enter the holidays, they should remember: Public land owners are watching. We’ll continue to demand quality habitat, public access, and the responsible management of our natural resources.

Kevin Farron of Missoula is Montana Chapter coordinator for Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. 

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