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Montana’s public lands are not Republican or Democratic. They are for all Montanans to enjoy for the benefit of our small businesses, for hunting, fishing, hiking and cherishing our freedoms away from the constraints of the daily grind. Whether it’s a rancher leasing land for grazing; a small business that sells 4-wheelers or fishing waders; or a parent teaching their children about the lessons of stewardship -- our Montana way of life is intrinsically connected to the access we enjoy to the great spaces that lie under the Big Sky. It’s not just the presence of public lands that we cherish, it’s the ability to access them freely.

Republicans and Democrats of all generations have a stake in keeping public lands open to the public.

A recent report written by Brett French of the Billings Gazette suggested that a transfer of federal lands to the state would potentially bolster state revenue through timber harvests, mineral and grazing leases but would also run a large deficit to pay for wildfire fighting and other new costs that come with managing and maintaining access to 25 million acres of public land. The report suggested a $367 million deficit that would force the state to come up with other sources of revenue, “such as the sale of public property, to fund the increased cost of managing lands.”

This report should serve as a wake up call to all Montanans regardless of political affiliation. The transfer of federal lands to the state would result in the sale of our public lands. Once sold, there would be no turning back.

Is there room for improvement in the way the federal government manages public lands in Montana? There is, no question. But, the answer is electing leaders who will go to bat for Montanans wanting better land management, not dumping federal lands altogether.

U.S. House candidate Ryan Zinke signed a pledge in 2012 vowing to prioritize transferring public lands to the state. And, he has called a Washington budget that proposes selling off public lands to pay-off the national debt, “a good framework.”

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His opponent, John Lewis, has been unequivocal in his support for keeping our public lands open to the public. And, he has shown he is willing to work with both Democrats and Republicans to ensure the management of our outdoor places is to the benefit of all Montanans.

We don’t just want someone who will say they like our public lands and accept the status quo. Montana deserves someone who is passionate about proactively working to increase access and support made-in-Montana legislation instead of Washington directives on how to manage our public lands. We urge all of the candidates for federal office election year to share Lewis’ resolve to fight off efforts that would result in auctioning off our public lands to the highest bidder. It’s a cause that future generations will thank us for.

Kendall Van Dyk is an avid sportsman and Montana State Senator from Billings. Charlie O’Leary owns the Staghorn Ranch outside of Butte and is a life-long hunter.

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