The Montana House narrowly passed a bill Monday that would prohibit the state from selling land transferred to it by the federal government.
The House voted 51 to 49 to pass House Bill 320 from Rep. Steve Gunderson, R-Libby. The bill bars the state from selling any land transferred to it from the federal government and has reinvigorated debate over an issue that became a major point of contention in the 2015 session.
Gunderson described the bill as “very simple” last week when the House voted 57-43 to advance the legislation on second reading. He called much of the opposition to the bill “misinformation,” adding “this is not a privatization of our public lands.”
Millions of acres of federal lands lie within Montana’s borders. In 2015, lawmakers heard a number of bills contemplating the prospect of transferring ownership of some or all of those lands to the state of Montana. HB 320 mirrors one of the bills heard in 2015 that was voted down in committee.
Opponents of federal land transfer 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.
Supporters of transferring federal lands often note the state could do a better job managing them and that transferred lands would turn into major revenue producers. They often also argue the state would provide better access plans, specifically that restrictions on motorized access could be curbed, and environmental litigation could be limited.
Rep. Willis Curdy, D-Missoula, challenged the simplicity of the bill, saying it would only take a future Legislature and governor to overturn the policy. The bill was about trying to make the unpopular concept of federal land transfer more palatable, he said.
Some Republican representatives spoke in support of the bill.
Rep. Steve Gist, R-Cascade, pointed to the ballooning federal debt and questioned whether the federal government could choose to sell public lands to pay that down. If the lands were transferred, the bill would offer them protection.
While Gunderson made it clear HB 320 does not propose transferring lands, his closing argument on the bill focused largely on what he saw as the benefits of the lands if transferred and under state ownership. That included some pointed remarks about environmental litigation, and the belief that state ownership would be a disincentive to sue.