The 2015 Montana Legislature has had no shortage of boondoggles since gaveling in a month ago. One of the worst is a legislative push by Senator Jennifer Fielder that at best is unconstitutional and fiscally reckless, and at worst would evict Montana families from our favorite hunting and fishing spots. Her proposal would force state ownership of 30 million acres of Montana’s national public land and force us to assume responsibility for the hundreds of millions of dollars in management costs.
To be fair, this isn’t Sen. Fielder’s idea alone. In the last two years, she has become a supporter and representative of the American Lands Council (ALC), a Utah-based organization pushing a scheme it euphemistically calls “Transfer of Public Lands Act”— the piece of legislation that would force Americans to give up their lands to the states.
It’s not the first time it has been tried. The Transfer of Public Lands Act used to go by another name — the Sage Brush Rebellion Act. That bill was crafted by groups funded by the Koch brothers, ExxonMobil and the Wilks brothers. The common denominator here is that these bills create conditions that strip Americans of their own lands by making it too costly to manage them at the state level. The bills are handed off to state legislators, who introduce them as their own ideas.
The current version was hatched by an extremist think-tank in D.C., then received a makeover in Utah, and is now being brought forward as a good idea for Montana. Regardless of how you slice it, it’s still a scheme meant to grow the riches of profiteers, corporations and the wealthy who are ready to buy up and exploit Montana’s lands once the state acquires them, forcing the state to sell them off to remain financially solvent.
Knowing that Montanans have no stomach for this bill, as shown by several bipartisan polls, Sen. Fielder is now trying to trick Montanans with political games by introducing a series of bills that she hopes will make the transfer scheme go down more easily all while trying to incrementally dismantle effective public lands management. The first of these would prohibit the state from selling off any lands transferred to Montana. Make no mistake — this is a political stunt. If Sen. Fielder were truly interested in not selling lands, then she shouldn’t be putting the state in a situation where we’d even have to consider it.
Up next, Sen. Fielder has plans to introduce a bill that requires the state to spend tax payer money on an economic analysis of the transfer scheme. Utah has already spent more than $2 million a year on a study of its own. This study concluded that, in order for the idea to be economically feasible, Utah would have to tie its entire economy to the volatile oil and gas market all while ejecting hunters and anglers out of their traditional hunting camps and fishing holes. These studies are a waste of time, resources and money.
We’ve been down this road before. Putting all our economic eggs in one basket is a sure fire disaster. Right now, Montana’s economy is diverse, strong and getting stronger. Montanans of all political stripes are working together to bring about positive legislation not only on land management, but on building a better infrastructure in our rural communities and, most importantly, creating good paying jobs. Governor Steve Bullock is working closely with federal managers and stakeholders to collaboratively solve problems, with excellent results.
Sen. Fielder spent the last 18 months with fellow members of the bipartisan Environmental Quality Council “studying” the public lands transfer. Because the outcome wasn’t what she wanted, she is now proposing to drag out the issue even more — at taxpayers’ expense. It is folly to think that another 18 months will produce a different result.
How long do we need to study a bad idea before we conclude it’s still just a bad idea? It’s time for her and her allies to put this outrageous idea to rest.
Rep. Virginia Court (D-Billings) and Rep. Ed Lieser (D-Whitefish) are both members of the Natural Resources Committee in the Montana House of Representatives. They also serve on the bipartisan Environmental Quality Council.