Montana lawmakers are being asked to vote against their own interests and those of all their neighbors. They are being asked to unfairly target and erode the rights of an individual property owner in Montana.
I refer to HJ 28, a joint resolution that would use the powers of the state to target the American Prairie Reserve (APR), an organization seeking to fund the construction of a public wildlife refuge and enhance access and recreation opportunities in northcentral Montana.
At the center of this debate is a recent request by APR to expand bison grazing on public lands. The group, which purchases land on the free market, has acquired several federal grazing allotments. They have requested permission from the Bureau of Land Management to use these allotments as pasture for their growing bison herd.
While the bison would remain behind stout fences, the group is trying to replicate as close as possible the way these Montana natives have grazed on our native prairie for thousands of years. The group has already been granted permits to do this in the past, but this current application is being reviewed by the BLM.
Which brings me to HJ 28. Supporters of this ill-advised resolution contend APR should not be allowed to change the conditions of their grazing permits. They say APR should not have the same privileges that cattle and sheep producers do to modify the terms of existing permits. They say the state should determine which property owners have rights and which do not.
Opponents of the resolution know this is a dangerous position. We say the state shouldn’t interfere. Anyone with federal grazing privileges should have equal opportunity to use their grazing rights so long as the health of the land is not degraded and federal laws are followed. We say this resolution is a misguided attempt to pressure the BLM into making a decision that circumvents an ongoing public process and ignores science.
HJ 28 is being pushed by the most unlikely lobbyist, the United Property Owners of Montana. This is a pro-property rights organization proudly proclaiming on their website, “the deterioration of one person’s property rights is really the erosion of everyone’s property rights.” I guess stripping the rights of APR isn’t considered and doesn’t count.
In Montana, if you’re trying to erode landowner privileges you better have a very good reason. Unfortunately, the sponsor of HJ 28, Rep. Bartel of Lewistown, recently admitted in a committee hearing that the resolution was based purely on his "beliefs." While I agree beliefs are very important, ideally, they are informed by facts. That’s just not the case with HJ 28.
If this resolution were more honest it would recognize that APR contributes to the local economy and pays property taxes just like everyone else. The resolution would recognize the Reserve allows public access through all private property and is expanding public access on public lands. It might even recognize that the Reserve is constructing a new 200 mile hut-to-hut system and a new multi-million-dollar National Discovery Center in Lewistown, in Representative Bartel’s district.
As it stands now, HJ 28 ignores all of this. HJ 28 is no more than a dishonest attempt to interfere with fundamental property rights and grazing privileges granted under federal law. As it stands now, HJ 28 is unlawful, unjustifiable and a discriminatory use of state power. I trust Montana’s lawmakers can recognize an attack on property rights when they see one because HJ 28 needs to be rejected by ours immediately.
Larry Epstein of Essex is a descendant of Montana homesteaders and is a retired lawyer.