In a recent op-ed, state senator Jennifer Fielder suggests that a Utah county commissioner, Nevada state legislators and a Canadian negotiator know what’s best for us here in Montana. I’d like to think Montanans know what’s best for Montana. While transferring federal lands into state hands may be of interest to some people outside the state, it’s certainly not in our interest. Far from it.
While Montanans know that the BLM and Forest Service are by no means perfect at handling our federal lands, we also know that if the state were to take ownership of those 30 million acres, Montanans would be saddled with the $340 million bill it would cost to manage the land. This proposal makes you wonder if Fielder and her Republican colleagues have any idea what it really takes to manage these lands.
As a former director of the state’s Department of Resources and Conservation, former county commissioner and as a landowner in Teton County, I do know a thing or two about land management, and I have a few questions for Fielder and other proponents of this loony idea to transfer federal lands.
First, how would Montana afford the costs of fighting wildfires on the additional 30 million acres of land (costs that could reach over $100 million in some years), not to mention the costs of weed management, road infrastructure, law enforcement, administrative oversight, fencing, trail maintenance and dozens of other land management responsibilities?
Second, how would ranchers, many of whom depend on public lands, be impacted? Right now, on federal lands, ranchers pay a grazing fee of $1.35 per animal unit month. On state lands, ranchers currently pay $11.14 and are projected to pay $14 by 2016, and the private lands market rate is $25 to $30 per AUM. What would the new rate be for transferred lands?
Third, what would happen to our recreational access? On state trust lands, we pay a $10 fee to recreate on state lands. If the amount of “state land” that Montana owns were to increase six times, as Fielder wishes, we might find ourselves paying fees like this one on millions of acres that we currently access for free. And how would our visitors to Montana react?
Fourth, after taking over federal lands, would the state also be able to afford the $30 million our counties currently receive from the federal government in the form of payment in lieu of taxes?
Finally, how much of our land could we expect to remain public or open to grazing and timber harvest when Montana is faced with the huge financial burden of managing those lands? The state would almost certainly have no choice but to sell off most of those lands to the highest bidder, shutting out not only ranchers, but sawyers, fire-wood cutters, outfitters and even tourists, while at the same time blocking us from hunting, fishing, riding horses and hiking on our favorite lands. Our livelihoods, and our way of life, would be gone.
In her op-ed, Fielder also suggests that Montanans have so far not formed an opinion on federal lands transfer. She refers to a legislative committee that took up the issue this summer and says the committee received “some testimony.” According to the Helena Independent Record, the committee received 214 comments, 195 of which opposed the transfer. That's not "some testimony" -- that’s definitive feedback that she would be wise to acknowledge. She would also be wise to acknowledge a recent bipartisan poll by the Center for American Progress showing that Montana has the greatest aversion of any western state to the idea of transferring federal lands. Sixty-one percent of respondents oppose the idea.
Please join me in letting Fielder and other legislators and candidates know that we fiercely oppose this dangerous, ill-conceived, fiscally irresponsible idea of transferring public lands into state and potentially private hands and that we want them to give up the idea now.
Contact her by email at Sen.JFielder@legmt.gov or by phone at 444-4800.
Mary Sexton is the former director of the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.