The state of Montana could not sell land granted or transferred to the state by the federal government under a bill from a Libby lawmaker.
Rep. Steve Gunderson, a Republican, brought House Bill 320 to the House Natural Resources Committee on Monday. The bill would change state law to say that any federal land granted to or transferred to the state by an act of Congress or a court decision could not then be sold.
“If public lands are truly public, then this simple bill to safeguard land transferred to the state should be a very simple yes vote,” Gunderson told the committee.
Lawmakers heard a similar bill in 2015 as debate about federal land transfer ramped up in Montana and across the West. The legislation became a focal point for critics of interest groups opposed to federal land transfer, as those critics believed the bill revealed a significant contradiction in the overall land transfer opposition movement.
Opponents often cite the expense of management under a hypothetical transfer, especially given Montana’s small population. That would lead the state under a large-scale transfer with little choice but to sell transferred lands into private hands, they argue.
But in arguing against the bill in 2015 and on Monday, opponents contend that some land sales should still be allowed.
“We do believe these smaller-scale sales do make sense in some circumstances,” said Noah Marion with the Montana Wilderness Association.
MWA opposed large-scale land transfers that would burden Montana taxpayers, however, strategic sales of some state lands may be important for opening up access or under the Montana State Board of Land Commissioners’ land banking program, he said. That program allows sale of school trust lands with the proceeds used to purchase other higher value lands.
Jake Brown with Montana Conservation Voters was one of several groups who felt the bill was a gateway to reopening the land transfer debate in arguing against it.
“This bill is a can of worms we don’t need to open,” he told the committee.
Supporters of transferring federal lands often cite management of those lands, believing the state could do a better job and that transferred lands would turn into major revenue producers. They often also argue that the state would provide better access plans, specifically that restrictions on motorized access could be curbed.
Rep. Paul Fielder, R-Thompson Falls, asked Marion if his testimony was a contradiction, citing large public land rallies during past sessions under the mantra of keeping public lands in public hands. Fielder’s wife, former state senator and current PSC Commissioner Jennifer Fielder, carried the unsuccessful 2015 bill. Jennifer Fielder became a major figure of the land transfer movement, including leading the American Lands Council, a group advocating for transfer and pushing legal theories that the federal government was obligated to transfer lands under state enabling acts.
Marion felt the answer is complex, echoing earlier testimony that the state should have authority to sell lands for strategic reasons. Marion said he would come back to the committee with an answer when asked whether he believed revenues produced by federal lands could cover the costs of ownership.
Gunderson closed on his bill, decrying the locked gates he sees on federal lands but also balking at the idea that all 25 million acres of federal lands in Montana would be transferred or that transfers would come in such large scales as to negatively impact the state.
“(Transfer) is not the impact it’s portrayed to be,” he said.
Gunderson also noted that the bill could be amended by future legislatures and that an amendment to the bill would clarify that land swaps would be allowed.
The committee did not take immediate action on the bill.
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Tom Kuglin is the deputy editor for the Lee Newspapers State Bureau. His coverage focuses on outdoors, recreation and natural resources.