Exploring public land transfers

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Thanks to passage of Senate Joint Resolution 15 last session, the Legislature conducted an intensive interim study of the problems with federal land management. I sponsored the 2013 legislation and chaired the 2013-14 study, both of which passed out of committee with broad bipartisan support. 

The information compiled into the SJ-15 report is undeniable. The federal model of land management is failing Montana. Access is decreasing, catastrophic wildfire conditions are escalating, our environment is suffering, and economic productivity has sadly slipped to an all-time low.

States all across the Wwest are feeling the same acute pains. Reforms in Congress have been attempted by hundreds, by thousands, and by millions… for decades.

Presently there are a number of efforts at the local, state, and national level aimed at trying to provide relief to communities, halt wasteful degradation of our resources, and stimulate more responsible management on our federally controlled public lands. I and many other legislators are working on a variety of bills to effect immediate improvements.

In addition to those efforts, serious deliberations are underway in about 20 states with interest in transferring control of federal public lands to willing states.

With the realization that decisions tend to be better when made by people closest to the subject matter, even Canada recently completed transferring control of their federal public lands to local governments.

The reason that transfer of public lands has become so popular is because of the dire need to improve access, health, and productivity on our public lands — not to privatize them, as adversaries often tout.

To that end Montana Republicans are promoting three bills to ensure we keep public lands public and perform our due diligence concerning the viability of the transfer of public lands:

  •  LC 1749 will prohibit the federal government from selling the public lands they currently control in Montana.
  •  SB 215 will prohibit the state from selling any public lands that are transferred from federal to state control in the future.
  •  And LC 1557 will establish a bipartisan task force to analyze the feasibility of transferring certain federal public lands to state control.

The Transfer of Public Lands Feasibility Task Force will be equally weighted with Democrat and Republican legislators, and will also include the director of state trust lands and the state forester as ex-officio members representing the executive branch. Members will be tasked with objectively investigating and answering the big questions about the transfer of public lands.

The feasibility study will require an economic analysis of measures that could improve land management cost efficiencies under state control, and funding options, including prevention and control of wildfires; projected high and low operation costs and revenues; the degree to which federal PILT and SRS payments to counties may be continued, replicated, or replaced; options for small incremental transfers over time; and a formula for distribution of revenues if revenues exceed operating costs.

The study will also call for identification of safeguards that can be put in place to protect or enhance public ownership, public access, valid existing rights, conservation, and economic productivity over the short and long term.

Our focus will be on lands currently administered by the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. We will not pursue congressionally designated wilderness, national parks, wildlife refuges, Indian reservations, or military properties. And the economic analysis will presume the land is to stay in public ownership under state control and will not be sold.

A concerted review and fair hearings through an objective, bipartisan interim study will provide the Legislature, the governor, and people of Montana critical information on which to base future decisions concerning the viability of the transfer of public lands. LC 1557 is designed to keep the task force small and the scope narrow so study costs will be low.  

I’ve got a variety of other bills in the works to stimulate better public land management. If you have any questions or suggestions about the Montana legislation I am working on, feel free to email me at Sen.Jennifer.Fielder@mt.gov or visit me at www.jenniferfielder.us. You can visit www.americanlandscouncil.org for information about the national Transfer of Public Lands movement.


Jennifer Fielder, of Thompson Falls, represents state Senate District 7, which includes part of Flathead County.

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