During a legislative committee hearing Thursday, a state senator insinuated that those opposed to the proposed transfer of federal land to state control should welcome her bill to prevent the federal government from selling public lands in Montana.
The opponents charged that the bill was unconstitutional and that land sales by the federal and state governments were often necessary to consolidate or provide access to public land.
The bill ultimately failed on a 5-7 vote and was then tabled.
Sen. Jennifer Fielder, R-Thompson Falls, brought Senate Bill 274 before the Senate Judiciary Committee, a bill prohibiting the sale of federal land in Montana, and repealing sections of code dealing with existing sales or transfers. Fielder, who has led the charge for large-scale transfers of federal lands to state control, said her bill would “shine a light” on public land sales already occurring.
“There’s been a lot of discussion about keeping public lands public and there’s been a lot of dialogue on the state possibly wanting to sell public lands,” she said. “But what’s been missed is Congress is $18 trillion in debt, and Congress has full power to dispose of public lands and they have disposed of public lands.”
The state is not consulted with or notified when such sales occur, and the bill would provide for more local involvement, Fielder said.
Fielder brought a bill earlier this month that would prohibit the state from selling any transferred lands. No action has been taken on that bill to date.
Fielder has said she also plans to bring a bill asking for a study of a transfer.
Speaking in support of SB274, Joe Balyeat, Montana state policy director for Americans for Prosperity, called the bill part of a larger issue of federal transfer of lands to the state.
“This debate is about local state control rather than Washington, D.C. control,” he said.
Opponents of the bill included the National Wildlife Federation, Montana Wildlife Federation, Montana Wood Products Association and Helena Hunters and Anglers.
“With all due respect to Senator Fielder, this legislation is about as unconstitutional as it can get and I think it’s a waste of time for this Legislature to pass it,” said Tom France of the National Wildlife Federation.
A state telling the federal government what to do on federal land violates the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution, as well as statutory and case law, he said.
“I think we have processes in place that really already allow the sale of public lands when appropriate, and I see little merit or good policy in barring the federal government from doing so,” France said.
Executive Director of the Montana Wood Products Association, Julia Altemus, echoed France in her constitutional assessment of the bill.
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“No industry (wood products) probably in the state of Montana has been more hurt from what’s happened in the last 30 years on Forest Service land,” she said.
Fixes are needed at the national level, but SB274 and the transfer of federal land movement are not the answer, Altemus said.
Sen. Jedediah Hinkle, R-Bozeman, brought several conservation group representatives back to the podium to ask whether they supported the current federal or state government selling off land to the highest bidder, as would be prohibited in SB274.
“The federal government should be allowed to sell land when needed as it sees fit,” said Nick Gevock, conservation director of the Montana Wildlife Federation.
The state should have the same ability, he told the committee.
Gevock noted post hearing that public land sales are often used to consolidate checker boarded land or gain access to larger swaths of public land.
The same questions were posed to Jake Troyer of Montana Audubon, who voiced an emphatic “no” to the support of any public land sale.
Federal and state programs are strategic in their selling of lands, which is a system that works, said Ben Lamb, speaking for himself.
Fielder closed the hearing questioning why the same groups opposing federal land transfer opposed SB274. The bill’s goal was to ensure that public land would not be sold off, she said.
“Those same people organized a rally on Monday, Presidents Day, Feb. 16. You may remember it, there were 500 raging people in this Capitol being incited to keep public lands public,” Fielder said. “Yet those same organizers of that rally are here today opposing legislation to keep public lands public and testifying that it’s OK to sell off public lands.”
During executive action, committee members Sen. Scott Sales, R-Bozeman, and Diane Sands, D-Missoula, continued questioning the constitutionality of the bill before voting against passage. Hinkle threw his support behind the bill, citing concerns over federal land sales.
The committee did unanimously approve an amended Fielder bill asking the state’s attorney general to pursue 5 percent of proceeds from historic federal land sales. Those proceeds are guaranteed to the state under Montana’s enabling act, but have not been paid, she said.
SB274 would have added leverage in pursuing those funds, Fielder said.
This story has been edited to identify Joe Balyeat as Montana state policy director for Americans for Prosperity.