The four Republicans running in Montana’s U.S. Senate primary are unified on policies curbing environmental litigation and regulations, along with “balancing” recreation with mining and logging on public lands.
But in interviews focused on natural resource policy ahead of June’s primary to decide who will take on Democratic Sen. Jon Tester, Big Sky businessman Troy Downing, former Billings judge Russell Fagg, Whitefish legislator and surgeon Al Olszewski and state Auditor Matt Rosendale drew distinctions on their experience, interest in protected lands and transferring federal lands to the state.
In this story, which is the first in a two-part series, the candidates discuss Montana’s natural resource amenities and economy and the current state of public land management.
All four Republicans detailed the importance of outdoor recreation in their lives. They have all hunted and fished, Fagg and Downing are avid mountain bikers, Rosendale skis and enjoys searching for deer antlers in the spring and Olszewski promised his kids a fishing trip the day after the primary.
While they value Montana for its recreational amenities, all four candidates describe a need for more equitability between public land recreation and extracting minerals and timber.
“The reason we live in Montana is because of our natural resource beauty and we need to preserve that for future generations, but we can also develop our natural resources and find a balance there,” Fagg said.
The Republicans believe mining and logging have been stifled and laws and rules meant to protect wildlife often go too far. They generally agree with the policies of former Montana congressman and current Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and support the Trump administration’s trend of rolling back regulations.
“We’re villainizing people,” Olszewski said of media focus on Zinke, who has seen criticism from environmental interests. “Ryan Zinke is a Whitefish boy and a strong Montanan who believes in access for us to not only hunt and fish and hike but also to use the resources.”
“I think they’re trying to recognize that we have gone too far to obstruct the development of our resources and you’re always trying to strike that balance,” Rosendale said of the Trump administration.
Rosendale, who owns a Glendive-area ranch, built a career in real estate development before his election as state auditor. He cites expertise in land use as one of his strongest qualifications with the ability to determine appropriate uses for lands ill served by “broad-brush” management.
“No one wants another Berkley Pit, no one,” he said. “So what we’re trying to do now, and I think they’ve been very cognizant of that, is to get to where we are utilizing our resources but still recognizing that there is a very broad diversity of types of land and uses that are suitable on each of those types of lands.”
Downing says that pitting mining and timber jobs against environmental protections is unnecessary, and he wants to see dialogue aimed at finding common ground.
“One of my big frustrations is you get this false choice from a lot of groups where they want you to make a decision – are you for the environment or against it,” he said. “The problem is there’s a whole other choice, are you for the people or against them, for the economy or against it? … So few people want to explore that hundred miles of distance between those two extremes because ultimately you can have both, you should have both.”
Fagg believes regulation reduction will benefit the economy. He cited long wait times for permitting decisions, saying he supports a stringent review but decried the loss of forest and mining jobs.
Downing agrees, touting his business acumen, and he sees a need to bring a private sector approach to streamline government agencies.
The notion of incompatibility of the environment with natural resource development has become polarizing and unproductive, the candidates said.
“Whenever you get on the fringe on either side of the issue, we find it distracts us from addressing the question of how we do this in a balanced way,” Olszewski said. “I’m a conservationist. Ever since I was in Boy Scouts I was taught to leave things better than we found it. And if you can … extract our resources in a productive way that is also safe to our environment, then you know what, we should be able to do that.”
As they voice support for collaborative public land management, all four Republicans singled out environmental groups that litigate forest projects and say they support reforming laws to limit lawsuits. Chief among those are the Equal Access to Justice Act, which allows payment of attorney fees for successful lawsuits, and the Endangered Species Act.
“I think they both need to be revamped,” Fagg said. “What’s fascinating to me is it’s hurting all of Montana. I want to protect grizzly bears and I think pallid sturgeon are really cool and hope they’re around a thousand years from now, but on the other hand we need to think about people too. It seems like people are getting the second shift in these things.”
Rosendale believes EAJA in particular is no longer being used as it was intended, to protect individuals from the copious resources of the government.
“That process has been taken advantage of and turned around to really tie up good projects in order to simply channel funds to legal entities and the subsidiaries they’re associated with,” he said.
Downing believes the laws have “gotten too big and too far a reach.”
“It allows people to stop us from doing what we need to do and the false decision of destroying habitat,” he said, which contributes to wildfire danger. “I believe the only people getting anything out of that are attorneys.”
Olszewski favors stripping amendments from the Endangered Species Act, as he thinks it has become “a political tool or weaponized” rather than protecting threatened wildlife, which he supports.
The candidates listed public land access as a priority but also believe too much motorized public access has been lost on federal lands.
“The hypocrisy I see with Jon Tester going around the last 11 years saying how he’s championing our access to public lands, but at the same time more than 20,000 miles of roads have been gated, obstructed or destroyed,” Olszewski said.
When one area shuts down for motorized use, it concentrates users in other areas, Rosendale said.
“While I do recognize there are areas that should be kept off limits for motorized vehicles … we have thousands and thousands of miles of areas that have previously been accessible to motorized traffic that are no longer,” he said.
Transferring the ownership of federal lands to the state of Montana drew some of the most divergent views, although none of the candidates said they would push transfer legislation. Transfer remains a tenet of the Republican Party platform and varying support across the West.
All the Republicans say they support increasing local say in federal land management.
Both Olszewski and Rosendale praised Montana’s management of state lands, which unlike federal lands, are primarily used to generate revenue for schools.
“As far as who owns them I don’t care, but public lands need to be public lands,” Olszewski said. “They’re a common good for the people.”
Downing said transferring ownership makes some sense in Montana, but it's not a priority.
“I think in Montana it’s something that’s not as daunting as in other places because I think we could actually have enough revenue through permitting and other fees to pay for managing it here,” he said. “The simple answer: I don’t think that’s a battle we’ll win any time soon so I don’t want to waste my time on it, but I do think we need local input on managing. Actually transferring the ownership, maybe in the longer future.”
Perhaps the biggest disagreement between the candidates has been voiced by Fagg, a firm opponent of federal land transfer, levying criticism at Rosendale for his 2014 support and association with the American Lands Council, the chief organization pushing transfer in the West.
“So I disagree with Matt on that and I think he’s wrong on that,” Fagg said.
Rosendale said he no longer supports federal land transfer. The position was borne from frustration with federal land management, although he says he always believed the lands should remain under public ownership.
“What I was driving at is to make sure that we have good management of those lands and no one could tell me with a straight face that those lands were being managed properly,” he said. “So what we’ve done now is I’ve spent the last several years traveling around the state many, many, many times, it is clear that the general populous of Montana does not want those federal lands transferred and I’m fine with that.”