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From the banks of Hauser Reservoir at her first of two Montana appearances Tuesday, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell praised the value of public lands while calling for holistic land management and adequate funding. Later in Browning, she celebrated a federal land buy-back program, saying tribal ownership enables leaders to pursue economic development that's difficult with divided land ownership.

Devil’s Elbow and public lands

Democratic Sen. Jon Tester and representatives from the conservation and outdoor business community joined Jewell at BLM’s Devil’s Elbow Campground near Helena to talk public land management and funding, chiefly the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

LWCF takes a portion of offshore oil royalties and offers them as matching grants through state and federal conservation programs. Among its Montana-based projects, LWCF has funded city parks, fishing access sites and larger state and federal land acquisitions.

Jewell called LWCF a “brilliant” piece of legislation.

“I know there’s talk here about, 'Well, we need to make sure there’s no more public lands, you can’t take care of what you have,'” she said. “Would you rather have it in private land ownership where you can’t have access to a place like this?” she asked about Devil’s Elbow, purchased with LWCF dollars.

Jewell’s remarks followed a recent speech at the National Geographic Society celebrating the centennial of the National Park Service. In that speech, and on Tuesday, she championed future public investment in lands and public land stewardship, but garnering support is a challenge considering the limited demographics using public lands, she added.

The future of land management means thinking at landscape levels rather than on a project-by-project basis. It also means understanding how animals use those landscapes and how people can live harmoniously with wildlife, Jewell said.

Land managers must also show the public why public lands are important, “and of course we need to fund out public lands,” she added, which play a factor in both Montana’s $6 billion recreation economy and the roughly $646 billion recreation economy nationwide.

As federal land agencies’ budgets fall, Jewell said she supports states contracting with federal agencies as a means of stretching limited land management resources.

Tester reaffirmed his support for LWCF, which recently saw reauthorization in the Senate and is awaiting reconciliation in the House.

“It’s important, quite frankly, because we’d have ecosystems across this great country that wouldn’t be preserved, and quite frankly as we look forward to the next 10 or 15 years, those ecosystems will not be here unless we have the types of public lands that LWCF is committed to,” he said.

The need for future access to the outdoors and the value nature provides was also touted by several other speakers.

“In Montana, we found the opportunity to connect our kids and now our grandkids to the natural world,” said Gerry Jennings with the Montana Wilderness Association. “Public lands provide that connection.”

Blackfeet Land Buy-Back Program

After a meeting with the Blackfeet Tribal Council in Browning, Jewell was honored by Chief Earl Old Person, who gave her the Blackfeet name Far Away Woman. He lamented the loss of culture spurred by federal termination policies and broken treaty promises.

"We ask as we give this name it will give us connection in a good way," Old Person said. "That we will continue to understand each other."

Jewell's stop celebrated the early successes of the Land Buy-Back Program, created following the conclusion of a decades-long lawsuit brought forward by Elouise Cobell and other Blackfeet leaders. The Cobell Settlement with the federal government included about $1.8 billion to help tribes buy fractionated lands from individual owners.

"It's difficult to give up ownership, even fractionated ownership, of land that might've been handed down for generations," Jewell said. "If you can't do anything with it, returning it to tribal ownership enables the tribe to make smart decisions on behalf of all its members."

The Blackfeet Reservation, one of the nation's largest, has about 900,000 acres broken into 500,000 tracts with more than 200,000 ownership interests that could qualify under the program. With so many owners on each piece of land, it becomes impossible to reach a consensus on how to develop.

"It's really almost unusable. I have fractionated lands. The leaseholder has more rights than I do," Blackfeet Chairman Harry Barnes said. "I can't even put a teepee on there. The leaseholders can do what they want. Consolidating may provide a tract big enough we could use it for our agricultural development program or some other project."

He encouraged fellow tribal members to at least consider selling to the tribe so that the land could benefit the community. Barnes noted that there has been 40 percent participation nationwide to date, with 65 percent participation on the Crow and Fort Belknap reservations.

"What's our take rate gonna be? I don't know," Barnes said.

Jewell said the department hoped to spend $100 million there to put land into meaningful tribal ownership.

To date, about $740 million has been spent, Jewell said, enabling tribes nationwide to undertake projects that would have been impossible without the land in tribal ownership. She noted a community water project on the Crow Reservation and a housing development on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

"The Land Buy-Back Program has been providing tribes greater certainty about their economic future," Tester said, noting he would support tribal efforts to make the program permanent.

Republicans call on Jewell to visit coal country

As Jewell visited Helena and Browning, Montana Republicans -- including Sen. Steve Daines and gubernatorial candidate Greg Gianforte -- asked that she visit Colstrip and other coal-dependent communities to answer for Interior’s recent moratorium on new federal coal leases.

“Secretary Jewell needs to hear directly from the people impacted by Interior’s actions and come to communities like Colstrip and the Crow Reservation to see what it means for Montana families,” Daines said in a statement. “We’ve already seen layoffs in coal communities across our state as a result of the Obama administration’s war on coal.”

Gianforte pointed to federal regulations as a threat to mining jobs in asking his opponent, Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock, to demand Jewell visit coal country.

“We cherish and enjoy our public lands here in Montana. But working Montana men and women won’t be able to enjoy our outdoors if they’re put out of work or forced to leave the state for job opportunities,” he said in a statement.

Jewell defended her and Interior’s interaction with the coal industry and communities, pointing to her March 2014 trip to the Crow Reservation and more recent visits to coal country by other Interior officials. The moratorium on new leasing is expected to last during the three years needed to complete an environmental impact statement, but will not disrupt existing supply.

“There’s a 20-year supply of coal right now in Montana,” she said. “This pause in leasing during the time it takes us to do this work will have no impact on coal jobs, no impact on coal mines staying open or plants being able to operate.”

While she said the agenda did not allow time to visit Colstrip, Jewell and Tester met Tuesday with several unions impacted by coal. Tester’s staff says that meeting included AFL-CIO, MEA-MFT, Boilermakers Local 11, IBEW Local 233, Laborers Local 1638 and International Union of Operating Engineers.

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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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