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Pine Creek Lake. Photo by Walker Stole
Jan 25 2017

Why We Must Rally for Public Lands

Radicals at the state and federal levels are taking a coordinated approach to seizing our public lands

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So far into the 2017 session, only two bills aimed at transferring national public lands to the state have been submitted. But this doesn’t mean the threat of transfer has lessened. Instead, it represents a shift in the pro-transfer strategy that takes a coordinated approach – at the local, state, and federal levels – to attacking public lands. It’s the most insidious approach we’ve seen thus far from anti-public land radicals, and it’s putting our public lands at greater risk than they’ve ever been before.

This fall, a report from the Western attorneys general stated in no uncertain terms that efforts by states to sue or otherwise compel the federal government to turn over national lands to the states have no legal basis. That means transfer advocates will need an act of Congress for their agenda to succeed. In response, Montana State Senator Jennifer Fielder, the Utah-based American Lands Council (of which Sen. Fielder is the CEO), and their allies have launched a coordinated campaign in Montana and throughout the West intended to pressure Congress into ceding national lands to the states.

This strategy involves introducing county pilot projects and passing state legislative resolutions that create the appearance of support for transfer. Anti-public lands radicals at the federal level, including Utah Congressmen Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz, could then use this apparent support from Montana and other states to justify legislation that transfers national public lands to the state. One such piece of legislation envisioned by the American Lands Council (ALC) would turn national public lands over to “willing states,” where the lands would be managed according to county resource management plans.
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We must recognize that, taken collectively, these actions form a coordinated and dangerous strategy to seize our public lands. Under a new administration with a relatively unknown and untested approach to public lands, these efforts could very well succeed if we allow them to move forward unchallenged.

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Sen. Fielder has so far requested, but not yet introduced, two resolutions, one to study transfer and one to request transfer (or “conveyance,” as ALC is now calling it) of federal lands to the state. Resolutions do not need the governor’s signature, so they could pass with a simple legislative majority and create the appearance that Montana is a “willing state” that wants to take over national public lands within its borders.

At the same time, the ALC is encouraging counties to draft pilot projects that request specific tracts of land for transfer to state and county management. These pilot projects, involving 10,000 to 20,000 acres, would be authorized by the federal ALC bill and then be used to justify transfer of increasingly larger acreages throughout the West. In Montana, Lake County has already proposed such a project. Mineral County has expressed an interest in creating one as well.

At the federal level, the transfer effort is already well underway. Just weeks ago, the House of Representatives passed a rules package that contained provisions that make it easier for Congress to transfer national public lands to the states. Previously, if Congress wanted to transfer federal lands, it had to calculate the revenue that would be lost from these lands and make cuts in other programs to cover that lost revenue. With the rules change, Congress can act as if the loss of these lands has zero cost, as if the lands themselves were worth nothing.

Another bill, introduced just today by Rep. Chaffetz, would dispose of 3.3 million acres of national public lands.

We must recognize that, taken collectively, these actions form a coordinated and dangerous strategy to seize our public lands. Under a new administration with a relatively unknown and untested approach to public lands, these efforts could very well succeed if we allow them to move forward unchallenged.

That is why we are asking all supporters of public lands to join us at the capitol rotunda in Helena at noon on Monday, January 30 to let our elected officials know that Montanans reject these efforts to seize our national public lands. Only through loud and vigorous opposition at every political level will we ensure that our outdoor heritage and way of life remain protected for generations to come.

Sign the petition to keep public lands in public hands and please let us know if you can make it to the rally and if you need a ride.

- Kayje Booker, MWA state policy director