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A bill funding a committee to study the feasibility of transferring federal lands to state ownership was lauded by proponents for providing valuable information about one of the most controversial concepts in land management.

Opponents charged that transfer has already been discredited and funding a study would waste taxpayer dollars on a futile plan few Montanans support.

Rep. Kerry White, R-Bozeman, brought House Bill 496 before the House Natural Resources Committee on Friday. The bill appropriates $35,000 and establishes the Transfer of Public Land Feasibility Task Force. HB496 comes as the latest effort in the Legislature to address concerns over management of federal lands, with a stalemate of bills both for and against a transfer failing to make it out of committee thus far.

“I think that’s what this study is trying to get is the answers on how we as the people of this state can make a difference,” White said. “Can we do a better job of managing our watershed and our clean air and clean water and an environment for wildlife habitat? The state does one heck of a good job managing our land.”

Eleven proponents of the bill blasted conditions on national forests while emphasizing the need to access and use public lands for economic stability.

Retired forester Jerry Okonski of Libby testified that over the past two decades, federal lands have become a “curse” and that economic opportunities have disintegrated under “woeful federal neglect.”

Proponent Sen. Jennifer Fielder, R-Thompson Falls, chaired an interim committee for the Environmental Quality Council looking at federal land management. Among the findings of the committee’s report showed a discontent among counties with federal land management, she said.

“Although there’s a number of bills this session I’ve been working on and others have that are designed to provide relief to afflicted communities and improve federal responsiveness and halt wasteful degradation of our natural resources, it’s become clear to many of us that the only solution may be to put these lands in state control,” she said.

“A study is a quest for information and we need to know what may or may not happen based on facts,” said Bob Gilbert of Citizens for Balanced Use.

Twenty-two opponents of HB496 challenged that a study would only reconfirm that a federal land transfer was a poorly grounded idea and a distraction from pragmatic solutions.

“In our business we’ve got a term for bills like this and it's ‘analysis paralysis,’” said K.C. Walsh, president of Simms fishing products in Bozeman. “I think we already know the answer that we’ll find out, and we strongly support federal ownership of these federal lands.”

Jack Atcheson Jr., chairman of the Wild Sheep Foundation, testified that current management of state lands would place undue burdens on recreationists. State lands are managed to produce revenues and not necessarily access while federal lands are managed for multiple use, he said.

“For how we’re being managed right now, no we don’t want new lands managed with heavy-handed rule making,” he said.

Other diverse interests such as the National Wildlife Federation and the Montana Wood Products Association agreed that only Congress could legally grant a transfer and has made no indication that it intends to do so.

“Our concern with the proposal of transfer or management could act as a distraction to national efforts and not provide the timing and progress needed,” said Julia Altemus, Montana Wood Products Association president. “Such an action would not only catapult the timber industry back into the timber wars of past decades, but it does not address or resolve the roots of the problems we’re facing of litigation or regulatory policies.”

During questions from the committee, Montana State Forester Bob Harrington testified that the state has made progress in partnerships with the Forest Service and expediting projects. He further testified that state legal intervention in support of federal projects has also been successful.

When asked, Fielder answered that other states had studied federal land transfer, and that newly acquired lands might remain multiple use, but that would be within the purview of the task force.

Fielder encouraged the committee to pass the bill, “To at least study this issue to make sure all the facts are on the table.”

White echoed Fielder in his support of the bill, emphasizing that pursuing a transfer was not the intention.

“This is a study, that’s all,” he said.

The committee took no action on the HB496.

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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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