by Senator Jennifer Fielder, R-Montana State Senate District 7
It’s a big idea and it’s rightfully reaping big debate nationwide. Can and should states assume control of the federally held public lands within their borders? Many colleagues throughout the west have been studying the issue intensively, and we now believe there’s no reason why we can’t.
The primary arguments against transferring federally controlled public lands to the state seem to be coming from those who do not fully understand the issue or from special interests that stand to gain from continuation of failed federal policies. Of course,valid concerns exist and are being carefully assessed.
The challenge is to get the facts on the table, put protections in place that are consistent with Montana values, and prepare our state agencies for an orderly transition. We have to educate decision makers and compel Congress to honor the Constitution and the terms of our statehood enabling acts which require federal title to be extinguished.
One of the clear advantages of shifting to state based ownership would be placement of decision making authority into the hands of Montanans.
Montanans, not Congress, the President, or any other state, would decide how much access, use, protection, and production we would want to see.
I cannot imagine any collection of people who could possibly care more about Montana’s public land, water, air, citizens, scenery, wildlife, and economy more than Montanans do. There is no question the 27 million acres of federally controlled public lands in Montana have an impact on every aspect of our lives. The same cannot be said of decision makers from states like New York, New Jersey and Florida.
With the national government facing insurmountable debt, the likelihood of Congress selling public lands to the highest bidder is imminent. In fact H.R. 2657, a bill authorizing the sale of hundreds of thousands of acres of public lands, passed out of a Congressional committee earlier this year. They can sell the lands without our input, and they are undoubtedly under pressure by foreign debtors to do so. That is a big concern for me.
On the flip side, a multitude of economic studies reveal drastic differences between state and federal financial management capabilities.
Nevada’s recent analysis shows a positive net revenue gain up to $1.5 billion per year for their state if they take over management of the public lands within their borders, even while maintaining existing recreational access, grazing, mineral, or other use rights.
The Nevada model for transfer of public lands would leave Wilderness, Indian Reservations, Military installations, National Parks, Wildlife Refuges, and Dept. of Energy facilities under federal jurisdiction. Utah’s proposal is similar.
Montana’s study of federally managed public lands clearly shows Montanans want more multiple use access to public lands, not less. We want to reduce wildfire fuels, increase economic production, and maintain a healthy environment. These values are consistent across the western U.S. But the fact is federal agencies continue to systematically do the opposite of what we want.
If we shift to state based management we will see jobs and economic vitality return to Montana. We will see priorities consistent with Montana values.
I support allocating the largest portion of resource production revenues directly to local governments, resulting in hundreds of millions of dollars annually for Montana roads, schools, law enforcement, emergency services, utilities, etc. This would more than make up for dwindling federal PILT and SRS funds.
With a responsible balance of protection, use, and production we could also bolster our state wild land firefighting department, reduce wildfire fuels, keep access roads and trails open, purchase new public access easements, develop recreation sites, enhance wildlife habitat, and probably reduce taxes too.
A thorough review of available data leaves me with no doubt our state would be better able to deliver positive results for our citizens than a distant federal bureaucracy can. Whether it is access, use, protection, economic production, or firefighting capabilities, Montanans are much more apt to set the priorities that are right for our state than Washington DC is.
Next week the Montana legislature’s Environmental Quality Council and our SJ15 Federal Lands Study Group will hear from a number of western states that are actively pursuing corrections in federal land management.
This meeting is open to the public and will take place May 14th in the State Capitol at 3:30pm. As Chair of Montana’s study of federal land management, I continue to gather extensive information, assess a variety of solutions, and welcome your comments or questions. You can reach me by email at email@example.com.
To learn more about this and all the issues I am working on or to sign into my communication network visit www.jenniferfielder.us. Complete information about transfer of public lands can be found at www.americanlandscouncil.org
Senator Jennifer Fielder
Montana State Senate – District 7