by Senator Jennifer Fielder, R-Montana State Senate District 7
Last week I joined leaders from throughout western America at the Utah state capitol for serious discussions about transferring federally controlled public lands to the states. As chair of Montana’s study on federal land management, I was invited to join Montana’s Speaker of the House Mark Blasdel, Senate Majority Leader Art Wittich, and Senate President Pro Tem Debby Barrett in the multi-state talks.
Several western states and counties have already implemented task forces to study various aspects of transitioning to state-based public land ownership. Last week’s legislative summit in Salt Lake City provided an opportunity for interested representatives and leading experts to exchange the information gathered so far and gauge interest in moving forward.
Upon returning home I provided in depth insights about the purpose of the summit and the overall federal lands issues in this speech given at Kalispel, Montana:
The urgency to make significant corrections in federal land management is no secret.
Conditions are so bad here in Montana, Governor Bullock just declared 5 million acres of western Montana national forests in need of expedited treatment due to declining forest health and imminent risks to the public. Unfortunately the national farm bill, which allows for the expedited treatments, came with no funding or guarantees that timely results will be achieved.
Recognizing the severity of the situation last year the Montana legislature enacted SJ-15 to require a bi-partisan study seeking corrective actions to solve problems with federal land management. That legislation drew broad bi-partisan support, received 83% approval, and was ranked by the state legislature as Montana’s number two interim priority. I was the chief sponsor of SJ-15 and have been assigned to Chair the bi-partisan legislative study group. We are exploring a number of options to bring about more responsible public land management. Transfer of Public Lands is the most significant proposal under consideration at this time.
The need to make serious corrections in the way federal lands are managed is recognized across party lines. In his address to the Western Governors Association last summer, Montana’s democrat Governor Steve Bullock remarked, “There’s a real high degree of frustration when it comes to management of our federal forest lands. In Montana alone the numbers are astounding. Since 2000, 6.3 million acres of Montana’s forests have been affected by the mountain pine beetle. 4.3 million acres of forest and range lands have been impacted by wildfire. The urgency is so apparent.”
“Wildlife habitat has been degraded, watersheds are at extreme risk, endangering key fisheries and clean water. Fire danger is off the charts, threatening local communities and stifling recreation, to say nothing of the economies of our rural communities. We now can’t wait for the federal government, though, to figure out a solution. It’s up to us as westerners to really bring answers forward, which brings me back, to I guess, my experience as a member of managing Montana’s public lands. I think that model works well because there is a clarity of purpose, first of all. Secondly with 5 statewide elected officials managing these lands there is direct accountability for decision making.”
Comparison reports show western states manage millions of acres of public lands in a responsible manner while providing multi-use access and significant revenues for our schools, universities, veteran homes, and school for the deaf and blind.
On the other hand, the U.S. forest service has been systematically shutting down access, allowing fuel loads to reach catastrophic wildfire levels, and losing money at an alarming rate since the early 1990’s. Federal policies are failing our forests, our environment, and our communities.
Many people do not realize Hawaii and all states east of Montana were as much as 90% federally controlled at one time. Today the vast majority of public lands there are under state control. Yet over 50% of the west still remains under federal control, even though permanent federal ownership of public lands is not consistent with the laws prescribed by our Constitution and Statehood Enabling Acts.
The legal history is quite extensive, going back all the way to 1780. In a nutshell, the federal government was only to hold the lands as temporary trustee. When Hawaii won a unanimous Supreme Court decision to assume ownership of their public lands in 2009, Utah and other states began taking a closer look at their options.
During the follow up press conference in Utah last Friday, Idaho Speaker of the House Scott Bedke affirmed that forests and rangeland managed by states suffer less damage and watershed degradation from wildfire than lands managed by federal agencies.
“It’s time the states in the West come of age,” Bedke said. “We’re every bit as capable of managing the lands in our boundaries as the states east of Colorado.”
Many leaders in western states understand that transitioning to state-based management would allow us to better care for the lands, reduce wildfire hazard, restore a balance of multiple use access and economic production, better respond to local desires, and bring a whole lot of good jobs back to the rural west.
The Republican National Committee, National Association of Counties, Utah Education Association, and Coalition of Montana Chambers are among the first to pass resolutions in support of transfer of public lands.
For more info on Transfer of Public Lands visit www.americanlandscouncil.org
Please feel FREE to connect with me via your favorite social media, check out my web site, and sign into my communication network at www.jenniferfielder.us
God bless you and the land that we love!
Senator Jennifer Fielder
Montana State Senate – District 7